CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 11 November) – The children wanted to give their puppies to the Air Force pilots to thank them for saving their lives.
Capt. Neil Jasper Layug who piloted the second helicopter that rescued 15 stranded residents – and three puppies — in Sitio Kapatagan, Barangay Luayon in Makilala, North Cotabato on Sunday, November 3, said he and his crew were teary-eyed when the three children who carried their puppies in flight, offered their pets to them “as gifts in exchange for saving their lives.”They said they were deeply touched by the children’s gesture but did not accept their offer.
Danilo Doquiles, Information Officer IV of the Philippine Information Agency who flew with the rescue team to Kapatagan to document the daring rescue, listed 15 residents rescued, aged 3 to 82.
Five of the rescued were children, two of them girls and three boys including 3-year old Christian Assan.
Doquiles remembers one of the girls carried a white puppy while one of the boys carried a brown one. He said he saw the third puppy when they had landed at the provincial capitol compound in Amas, Kidapawan City and he heard Christian say “ipliti niya sa pagsakay sa helicopter ang iyang itoy” (he will offer his pet as fare for his helicopter ride).
Doquiles said he was unable to photograph the children with their puppies because they were loaded first along with the elderly.
Lt. Col. Florante Baterina, commander of the Philippine AF Tactical Operations Group 11 based in Davao City said it is not unusual for pilots and helicopters to encounter strong winds when they try to drop food supplies at low altitude. But the mountainous terrain in North Cotabato where a big part of Mt. Apo, the country’s highest mountain (2,954 meters or 9,692 feet) is located, makes it difficult for rescue helicopters and pilots.
Capt. Frankloyd Tabat was assigned as pilot of the lead helicopter in the rescue mission that also involved a Super Huey. Their destination: Sitio Kapatagan in Barangay Luayon in Makilala, North Cotabato, which is near the boundary with Magsaysay in Davao del Sur and Columbio in Sultan Kudarat province.
Tabat piloted a gray Bell 412 helicopter, an aircraft assigned to President Rodrigo Duterte and based in Davao City.
President Duterte, who was then in Bangkok, ordered Tabat to participate in the rescue and relief operations in the quake-hit areas.
“We prayed for good weather before the mission and God gave us everything,” Tabat said.
Prior to that, Baterina sent a small team of soldiers to trek to Sitio Kapatagan to scout for possible landing sites.
A 14-man team from the Army’s 10th Infantry Division’s Emergency Response (ERC) and the 39th Infantry Battalion based in Makilala hiked for at least five hours, passing by areas partly covered by landslides until they reached the residents at nightfall on November 2.
The rocky precipice at 3,000 feet above sea level that was about to collapse was the only good landing site the soldiers found, a few hundred meters from the village.
Pfc. Jacil Joe Tupa of the ERC, one of the soldiers deployed to look for the residents and find a landing site, estimated the distance at 600 meters.
Tabat said they made a first attempt to rescue on November 2 but were driven back by strong sudden gusts of wind.
“We will do it again so others may live”
They dropped some food supplies to the villagers instead.
On November 3, God answered their prayers.
“I made the first landing while the white helicopter hovered above, looking for any danger,” Tabat recalled.The white helicopter is a Super Huey UH-IH of the 505th Search and Rescue Group which Layug piloted.
Tabat recalled seeing the precipice was crumbling and nearby trees posed serious risks for their helicopter propeller blades.
With the guidance of their door gunner, he slowly maneuvered his Bell 412 to land on the precipice.
“I was careful because the weight of my helicopter could collapse the landing site,” he said.
Tabat made a “light on skid” landing – a maneuver that helicopters hover with their landing gear barely touching the ground.
Successful with the maneuver, he pulled away from the precipice after dropping his passengers including Doquiles, the photographer, and picking up eight residents.
Tabat then radioed Layug who was piloting the second helicopter, to land following the maneuvers he made.
“If you ask was I scared? Yes I was scared. I saw rocks and soil crumbling when the other helicopter landed and took off,” Layug said.
Layug landed safely and airlifted seven residents. Like Tabat before him, Layug took off before diving into the 3,000 feet above sea level space to gain speed.
Both helicopters were able to rescue a total of 15 residents from Sitio Kapatagan in Barangay Luayon, one of four barangays in Makilala declared by the government as “no-build zone,” hence residents can no longer go back to this village. Makilala has 38 barangays.
Layug said all the fear and risks they had disappeared the moment they landed safely at the North Cotabato provincial capitol in Amas, Kidapawan City with the rescued residents and yes, the children’s puppies.
“We did not mind the danger. We will do it again so others may live,” Layug said. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews with a report by Carolyn O. Arguillas)