Foot soldiers: unsung heroes of Makilala helicopter rescue

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 6 November) – Unknown to many, the helicopter rescue in the mountains of Makilala, North Cotabato last Sunday would not have been possible if not for the bravery of Philippine Army troopers.

Soldiers trek across the massive landslide going to Barangay Luayon in Makilala, North Cotabato on 2 November 2019. Photo courtesy of Pfc. Jacil Joe Tupa / 10th ID-ERC

“We didn’t mind the cracks or the landslides, what’s important to us was to save the trapped residents,” recalled Pfc. Jacil Joe Tupa of the Emergency Response Company (ERC) of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division.

When authorities received information that several residents were still trapped in the mountain village of Luayon in Makilala, North Cotabato, a 14-member team of Army soldiers, among them Tupa, was sent to locate and rescue them.

Aside from ERC, the rescue unit was also composed of elements from the Army’s 39th Infantry Battalion based in Makilala.

The residents were not able to evacuate to safer grounds as massive landslides had blocked the roads due to a series of earthquakes. The area has been rocked by several quakes, including four with magnitudes above 6 (6.3 on October 16, 6.6 and 6.1 on October 29 and 6.5 on October 31).

In a chat with Tupa, he narrated the risks they faced, including imminent landslides, when they trekked on Saturday, November 2, to get to the sitios of Bagong Silang and Kapatagan in Barangay Luayon.

“Maayo pa sa engkwentro”

Maayo pa sa engkwentro kay makabalos ta, sa landslide dili” (An encounter with the enemy would have been better because you can fight back. You can’t with landslides), he quipped.

Tupa bared that they trekked for five hours before reaching the trapped residents in Sitio Kapatagan by nightfall. They spent the night with them.

“We admit, we were a bit nervous because we know that it is a landslide-prone area and some cracks might cave in anytime,” he said.

The landslides isolated several villages, including Luayon, and were only accessible on foot.

Acting Vice Governor Shirlyn Macasarte-Villanueva said they learned about the trapped residents on Friday, November 1.

Soldiers assist villagers as they board the rescue helicopter in Barangay Luayon in Makilala, North Cotabato on 3 November 2019. Photo courtesy of Pfc. Jacil Joe Tupa / 10th ID-ERC

Residents from Luayon who were able to evacuate on October 29 informed the authorities that there were still people left in the mountains.

Villanueva joined the rescuers onboard two Philippine Air Force (PAF) helicopters: a Bell UH-1 of the 505th Search and Rescue Group and a Bell 412 helicopter, which is often used to transport VIPs, including President Rodrigo Duterte especially during the Marawi Siege in 2017.

The soldiers were assisted by personnel from the Bureau of Fire Protection, who also boarded the helicopters.

Landing zone

On Sunday morning, after securing the landing zone, which sits on top of a ridge surrounded by vegetation, the soldiers called for the airlift.

The landing zone is at least 600 meters away from houses of the villagers, Tupa said.

While the soldiers were confident that the pilots were skilled enough to find means to land the helicopters, Tupa said they were also ready to escort the residents to safer grounds on foot if the helicopters could not land.

“If there was no landing zone, we have to hike but the residents will be forced to leave some of their heavy belongings,” he said.

Tupa added that he was astounded by the skills of the PAF pilots who were able to land on top of a ridge which had already partly collapsed.

This writer learned through a PAF personnel who was part of the rescue mission that it was indeed a high-risk mission, acknowledging the vital role of the Philippine Army troopers. “Malaki talaga ang role ng mga sundalo dahil inayos talaga nila ang landing zone, parang pinatigas para di bibigay kasi marami ng cracks.” (The soldiers played a big role because they made sure the landing zone was stable enough, that it won’t give way despite the cracks.)

Of the 21 villagers, only 14 were airlifted before noon to the Incident Command Team headquarters in Amas Capitol Compound in Kidapawan City.

The rest preferred to walk, along with the Army responders, because they had to bring along with them some livestock and motorcycles.

As soon as they touched down at the capitol grounds, Villanueva said they immediately sent two sick children to the hospital.

Trail of destruction

Located at the foothills of Mt. Apo, Makilala is the hardest-hit town in North Cotabato following the powerful earthquakes that also jolted Kidapawan City and Tulunan (also in North Cotabato) and the neighboring town of Magsaysay in Davao del Sur. Makilala was the epicenter of the Magnitude 6.5 quake on Oct. 31, but Tulunan was the epicenter of the previous quakes.

At least 20,000 houses have been totally destroyed across Makilala’s 38 barangays, according to the report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

The powerful tremor left a trail of destruction and at least 21 dead—18 in North Cotabato and three in Davao del Sur—and over 400 others injured.

Since October 29, thousands of families have been sleeping on the roadside and open grounds. Appeals were made for food, water, tent materials, among others.

Authorities have ordered forced evacuation in villages affected by landslides. Experts have warned that aftershocks and rains could trigger more landslides, especially in areas where massive cracks have appeared. Aside from landslides, massive cracks have also appeared in many of the villages, including Luayon, one of four villages that have been declared as a “no build zone.” (Keith Bacongco / Special to MindaNews)