NEW BATAAN, Compostela Valley (MindaNews / 3 December) – Seventeen-year-old Joseph Babag, remembers vividly December 3, 2012, the day before super typhoon Pablo struck their town.
Classes had been cancelled so his two younger siblings were home and were having fun with his farmer-parents until evening.
He could not understand why “I was just on the sidelines, watching them so happy.”
At around 1 a.m. on December 4, the Babag household and their neighbors were awakened by howling winds.
Four hours later, heavy rains poured and coconut trees started to fall, hitting several houses, including theirs.
“We started to evacuate. I brought my younger sister to our relative’s house for shelter because it was raining hard,” he said.
But coconut trees also crashed on his relative’s house so they rushed to the health center at least a hundred meters away.
Forty-five-year old Emerito Cantila also ran to the health center along with his father-in-law. His family had earlier fled to safer grounds but he returned to fetch his father-in-law.
“He refused to leave. He told us to just save ourselves because he was already old. But I returned to him after evacuating my family.”
Cantila’s house was near the elementary school, some 40 meters away from the barangay health center.
As they were heading towards the town proper, strong winds and heavy rains forced them to seek shelter at the health center.
Three hundred souls
Both survivors said about 300 people sought refuge at the two-story health center, most of them children aged five and younger.
Cantila recalls how people crammed into the 90-square meter floor area like sardines packed in a can.
Families were holding and hugging each other, crying and saying their prayers together, he noted.
Babag said many sought refuge in the health center because it was the tallest and perhaps the sturdiest structure in the village.
Then came the floods.
But it wasn’t just raging waters but also a mix of mud, rocks and uprooted trees.
Scientists would later say what happened in New Bataan, particularly in Barangay Andap whose village center was practically wiped out, was a “debris flow.”
In the aftermath of Pablo, huge boulders and rocks could be found along the eight-kilometer path of the debris flow.
Swirling mud and water
Cantila recounted that the first wave of water was at least five feet high.
“At the bottom, it was hollow but on top it was swirling.”
When the raging waters hit the building, he had reached the second floor but saw through the stairway how the flood had shattered the glass windows of the health center.
He said the water rose very quickly, swirling inside the first floor of the building.
“The people on the first floor were spinning. I could only see their heads. They were crying for help,” said Cantila as he demonstrated using his hands how the people spun like they were in a washing machine.
Babag said many tried to climb to the second floor but were not able to make it because the stairway was already crowded.
The voices of those on the first floor waned as the waters covered the entire floor.
Three kilometers away, Kevin Sepe in Purok 14 was also swept away by the debris flow.
The 17-year-old son of a farmer recalled he and his father and 12-year-old brother were about to help their neighbor whose house was hit by felled coconut trees.
“We left our mother at home but the waters suddenly came, carrying away our mother.” He said they were able to hang on to a two-story concrete house nearby but it was swept away, too.
Sepe said he was separated from his father and younger brother.
Cantila urged those on the second floor of the health center to jump on the chance that they might be able to survive. He said many may have opted against jumping because they were scared of being hit by logs and trunks.
Babag said that when the water started to enter the second floor, his father grabbed a wooden chair and hammered the ceiling to create a hole then climbed first and grabbed his younger brother.
When it was the turn of his younger sister, she would not let go of her mother, too.
As he passed on his sister to his father, the wall on the left side of the health center caved in, sweeping away everyone.
When he got to the roof, Babag could not find his younger sister and his father anymore.
“I saw my brother. He was crying and he told me that they were gone.” He hugged and kissed his brother’s head and told him: “Keep faith. We are going to survive this.”
Cantila admitted he was scared to jump off the building but when the health center leaned due to the force of the debris flow, he threw caution to the wind as he prayed he would survive.
“I was scared of being pinned down. The building had steel trusses and thick concrete slabs,” he said.
Babag’s brother was pinned down when the roof and steel trusses gave way.
“I tried to punch a hole through the roof because we were gasping for air. But we were swept away.” He was able to cling on to a piece of the ceiling but his brother was carried away.
“I could still remember his muddy face looking at me while he was carried away by the flood, as if he was saying: ‘My kuya may have ignored me.’”
It was around 7 a.m. when the building collapsed, said Cantila.
Roller coaster ride
As they were swept away, Babag, Cantila and Sepe hang on to any debris in the hope they would live.
“I tried to hold every log or coconut tree I could find. But the waves of mud and water tossed me up and down. I thought I was going to die,” said Cantila.
Like Cantila, Babag said he also tried to cling to a coconut trunk. Many times he would sink then resurface.
“I kept on praying. I asked God for forgiveness of my sins.”
But Babag was lodged on a Y-shaped branch which got stuck on a pile of debris.
“The debris was hitting me. I had wounds all over my body. I could not feel the pain anymore because my body was already numb,” he said.
Sepe also clung to a coconut trunk but fell several times.
“I was aware that there was a house behind me but I could not cross because of the strong currents. For two hours, I was hallucinating that I was rescued and taken to the house where a bed awaited me. I was so tired, I wanted to sleep,” said Babag.
But the debris kept on hitting his body. “All I did was pray. The water subsided when I uttered Amen.”
Two coconut trunks appeared and rested across the water leading towards the house, he said. Babag said he picked up a bamboo pole as a prop to cross over the coconut trunks. “The villagers helped me, they offered me food and medicine.”
Stuck in the mud
Cantila was swept towards a muddy embankment, where he was eventually stuck. He sustained dozens of cuts all over his body.
“My arms had most of the cuts as I was struggling to hang on to every trunk I could see,” Cantila said as he showed off his scars.
By noontime, some villagers came to the area looking for their relatives. He asked for help but was ignored because they were carrying the smaller ones first out of the area.
“Maybe because I was big and it might be tough for them to rescue me,” Cantila said.
He spent the night lying in an open muddy field. The following day, he managed to crawl to a nearby shanty owned by a certain Albarico.
Some people arrived and one of them gave him a lollipop. “I tried to eat it, but I could not roll it inside my mouth because I was so thirsty. My mouth was so dry, the lollipop stuck in my gums.”
By noontime of December 5, his neighbors found him in Purok 7, some eight kilometers from Andap, and carried him on an improvised stretcher.
They walked for at least a kilometer, navigating through mud and pile and debris, until they reached the municipal gymnasium from where he was transported to a hospital in Tagum City, some 56 kilometers away.
Babag was also sent to a hospital in Tagum.
At the hospital, Cantila said he was not immediately attended to because dozens of survivors queued for treatment.
“They took me in an area where I was washed up using a power sprayer to remove the dirt from my wounds. It was so painful. It was done twice because the doctor still saw dirt in my wounds,” he recalled.
Babag said his father, mother, and two younger siblings remain missing.
Cantila’s wife and three children, who earlier fled their house, are alive.
But Cantila’s 80-year-old father-in-law was among those swept away. His body was not found.
Aside from his father-in-law, seven others members of the Cantila family remain missing.
Sepe’s parents and 12-year-old brother remain missing.
Sepe is among the recipients of the housing program of the San Antonio parish known as Mediatrix village. Most of them are survivors from Purok 14.
Cantila spent at least a week in the hospital before he was reunited with his family in Andap.
He now runs a sari-sari store near the chapel.
Babag returned to New Bataan a month after the disaster.
“I asked Fr. (Edgar) Tuling if I can stay in the parish. I’m glad that he welcomed me.”
At least 400 persons in New Bataan town were killed while at least 300 others remain missing.
Cantila estimates about 300 persons sought refuge in the health center. Only nine survived. (This piece was first published in the December 2, 2013 issue of OUR Mindanao, MindaNews’ weekly newsmagazine.)