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Braving the Perplexities and Travails of the Search and Rescue Saga in Bicol with an Iota of Hope

By Rhaydz Barcia

LEGAZPI CITY: Making a living in a “one-stop-shop” of disaster such as in “disaster-prone” Bicol, takes a lot of courage and resiliency before, during and after “nerve-racking” and “whip-lashing” natural calamities when one has to remain on her feet and maintain composure amidst rampaging climate change phenomena.

I have been writing for THE MANILA TIMES for almost ten years now as a regional correspondent.

As a photo-journalist in the countryside, I have no particular beat I’m a “jack of all trades,” trying to cover everything happening in the region: business, energy, defense, politics, health, education, police, environment, tourism, insurgency, disasters, among many others.

I go to different places – to the far-flung and outskirt areas in Bicol in pursuit of first hand information from where the action is.

One time, I had to negotiate on foot a 20-kilometer knee-deep muddy and rugged terrain on my way to the mountainous village of Luklukan Sur in Jose Panganiban town in Camarines Norte where a small-scale illegal mining company was exploiting child laborers in its quest for money unmindful of the children’s exposure to hazards.

The adversities I had to go through as a practicing journalist in the countryside were nothing compared to the rewarding results of my investigative reports and I am happy carrying out my mission as a public servant under the “fourth state”.

In the case of the child laborers in Camarines Norte, my reward came when the children were rescued away from the mining site by the joint efforts of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Philippine government after a series of my special report was published in THE MANILA TIMES barely 10 years ago.

Covering events in the Bicol Peninsula is indeed rewarding, at times challenging and taxing especially in times of disaster. Bicol region suffers the brunt of disasters that hit the country annually – name it, Bicol has it: typhoons, flash floods, volcanic eruption, tsunami threat, storm surges, landslides, earthquake, etc.

As reporter and photographer at the same time, I find disaster reportage as the most difficult and strenuous. Whenever disaster strikes, I have to race against the clock especially when the calamity takes place in the island provinces or at the farthest areas of the region.

Oftentimes, I find myself in the company of rescuers travelling by air, land or water regardless of poor weather conditions just to chronicle the events and more often than not I am already among the volunteers assisting disaster managers in saving the hapless victims of natural calamities.

When Typhoon Basyang (Conson) hit Southern Luzon on July 12 this year, at least 32 fishermen were reported missing believed to be swept by big waves off the north-eastern coastlines of Bicol Peninsula.

The next day, Director Bernardo “Raffy” Alejandro of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) convened the Regional Disaster Coordinating Council (RDCC) and created the Joint Task Force Basyang to search and rescue the missing fishers in Bicol, particularly in Catanduanes and the Camarines provinces.

Immediately after, Director Alejandro dispatched an aerial survey mission to look into the effects of Typhoon Basyang in Catanduanes but due to bad weather the pilots of the Tactical Operations Group Bicol- Philippine Air Force opted to divert their mission to Camarines provinces where several fishermen were also reported missing.

On July 14, Ensign Denver Ramon of the Naval Forces of Southern Luzon Public Affairs Office and concurrent Spokesman of the OCD Bicol, called me up early in the morning inviting me to join the search and rescue mission heading for Catanduanes.

Without taking breakfast, I rushed to the Tactical Operations Group 5-Philippine Air Force to catch the 30-minute time frame given to me to be able to join the search and rescue mission.

I almost forced the “habal-habal” driver to drive fast as Ensign Ramon kept calling to tell me the pilots are about to take off and I’m the only one they are waiting for.

Soon enough, with flushed face and heart pounding fast, I reached the gate of TOG-5 headquarters, run towards the tarmac, and saw right there OCD Director Alejandro, Air Force and Navy officials as well as two other broadcasters and a cameraman all waiting for me and made me guilty as never before. (Well, better late than never…).

The Philippine Navy Islander 311 aircraft was manned by Navy Pilots LTJG Noel Stephen M. Marzan and LTJG Arcy Arcellano who gave us safety tips and things to do in case of possible aircraft trouble or worst, possible crash on the sea.

Along with two other broadcast journalists, I was the only newspaper journalist from a national broadsheet invited by the Bicol OCD to join the search and rescue mission for the missing fishermen since Typhoon Basyang hit the region on July 12.

The naval reconnaissance team conducted a thorough and parallel search and rescue mission in the waters of Catanduanes: 10 miles south of Virac; 10 miles in the eastern side of the island province; then headed 60 miles farther off Pandan town making a total of 560 nautical miles within the boundless waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The pilots looked searchingly at their right and left sides while I gazed down on the ocean scrutinizing for floating objects in the water hoping against hope they might be the missing fishers. I also prayed silently and fervently to God that He might save the disaster victims.

At times the aircraft would fly low especially when there seemed to be floating objects on the high seas, but soon the searchers manifested signs of weariness, discomfort, hunger and thirst. The situation was worsened when the air conditioning unit ran out of order!

Occasionally the pilots would open the tiny window to allow air passage. I tried to stay awake and waited to see any sign of life on the waters. Seated behind the pilots, I would sometimes tap their shoulders and point to strange-looking objects afloat and there was a feeling of teamwork among us.

The Navy Islander 311 hovered for almost five hours in the sky, the longest search and rescue (SAR) mission I have ever witnessed, unfortunately, there was no sign of life. But still there is this iota of hope in each of us.

The Philippine Navy Islander 311 aircraft can fly for five hours and 30 minutes longer than an Air Force chopper with only two and a half hours flying time durability.

And so for almost five hours I and my colleagues endured the heat and discomfort inside the aircraft. Some were already suffering from extreme uneasiness, fever and stomach pain as there was no comfort room to release body toxins while the pilots were uncomplainingly doing their task.

Soon the searching had to end. The pilots decided that five hours of soaring over Catanduanes and Camarines Sur are enough and then it was time to fly back to Legazpi City.

Before 2:00 pm we were met at the TOG-5 tarmac by OCD Director Alejandro and Air Force Major Antonio Rosayaga. My colleagues went directly to the comfort room while I opted to interview LTJG Marzan.

After the interview, I had a quick lunch with disaster officials, went home to freshen up, took my laptop then proceeded to the media center to compose and file my story. It was while writing my article that I began to take the toll of my ordeal in the air. Feeling hot and cold, my head aching, I felt dizzy and began to quiver badly but I tried to fight back and went through with my story.

Luckily, I was able to finish my story and sent it to my desk before nearly collapsing. Just in time, CIRCA director “Nong” Rangasa dropped by the media center for national correspondents and sensed that something was wrong with me. Before I finally fainted, Nong’s staff nurse, Monette, gave me some first aid and helped me overcome my fatigue.

Since I was alone in the media center that day, my friends, Nong and Monette drove me home to take my much needed rest.

I regained my strength the next day after taking enough rest and vitamins and again joined the SAR mission conducted by TOG-5 Philippine Air Force Bicol led by Air Force Col. Guillermo Molina, Col. Marlou Salazar of the 901st Infantry Brigade both members of the Task Force Basyang created by the OCD including the Philippine Coast Guard 5, the 505th Search and Rescue Group based in Manila, the Naval Forces Southern Luzon, and the 9th Infantry Division.

The Task Force conducted a daily massive SAR mission for the missing fishermen. The JTFB Bicol brought together the teams with the capacities for rapid search and rescue efforts.

The JTFB Bicol assets included two Huey II SAR aircraft from PAF’s 505th SAR group based in Manila, two UH -1H from PAF’s 205th Helicopter Wing under the operational control of TOG-5 based in Legazpi City, two BN Islander aircraft from PN’s Naval Aviation Group based in Sangley, one Patrol Gunboat from PCG, and several borrowed motorized bancas by the various Coastguard Detachments in Bicol.

In six days of SAR operations, the JTFB Bicol employed several air assets covered over 16,250 nautical square miles of the coastal areas of Bicol and logged 55.1 hours through 47 sorties in SAR flight operations.

While the Philippine Coast Guard accounted for 84.75 hours of sea SAR and the Philippine Navy boats patrol gunboat and two fast crafts cruise for 108.25 hours, the PA units with their teams and mobility assets provided continuing search and security support.

In the five-day SAR missions conducted by the JTFB Bicol, I was able to join several aerial SAR missions of the TOG-5 led by Col. Guillermo Molina as the OCD Bicol led by Dir. Alejandro tapped the media practitioners in the countryside for strong partnership and better disaster response outcome in Bicol. These efforts resulted in the rescue of 83 persons, retrieval of 17 dead bodies, although 32 people remain missing to date.

Although the government through the OCD in Bicol had employed and utilized all the AFP hardware, the 32 fishermen remain unaccounted for. Just before the OCD deactivated the JTFB, the PAF helicopter squadron from TOG-5 led by Col. Molina and the PAF’s 505th SAR group based in Manila were able to retrieve a decomposing body of a fisherman in Calaguas Island in Camarines Sur.

Compared to super typhoons Milenyo and Reming that previously battered the Bicol region, typhoon Basyang was very moderate and yet the TOG-5 under Molina was able to retrieve 17 dead persons and discovered a dead sperm whale swept ashore in the island town of Rapu-Rapu in Albay.

Looking back to November 30, 2006 when Super Typhoon Reming hit Bicol and devastated the province of Albay, I was the only journalist invited by disaster officials to join them in the aerial survey to witness the upshot of catastrophe wrought by the nerve-racking disaster ever to hit the region: more than 1,000 people killed either buried alive or swept to sea by the rampaging flashfloods; a highway of death, desolate faces, displaced families; government and private infrastructure and agricultural lands and crops laid waste.

That was the most horrifying and nail-biting coverage I had ever done. No matter how objective I tried to be as a journalist, I couldn’t hold back the tears as I saw the lifeless bodies scattered everywhere, the inexplicable ordeals they’ve gone through still etched on their faces. The nightmares seemed never to end until after a long time.

The tragedy that took place here barely four years ago was beyond words. It was a year without Christmas, without summer. Who knows how strong typhoons can hit the Bicol Peninsula as climate continues to change?

As long as an iota of hope remains in me I will continue to write and help shape people’s lives whether in the local, national and international scene in the line of action on disaster preparedness, contingency plan and adaptation measures.

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