Typhoon Haiyan: “New-born” officer back on the job

TACLOBAN, Philippines – An officer who says a seven-year-old boy saved him from Typhoon Haiyan is back directing services for military humanitarian airlift flights for survivors. Lt. Col. Fermin Carangan says he missed the first two weeks of intense activity after the storm made landfall on November 8, demolished his […]

TACLOBAN, Philippines – An officer who says a seven-year-old boy saved him from Typhoon Haiyan is back directing services for military humanitarian airlift flights for survivors.

Lt. Col. Fermin Carangan says he missed the first two weeks of intense activity after the storm made landfall on November 8, demolished his base and threw him in the water. He remembers being “tumble-washed in a washing machine” at sea.

The workload has eased a bit, said the commander of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) Tactical Operation Group 8. Roads littered with fallen trees, power lines and mountains of debris are very slowly being cleared, allowing overland distribution of relief supplies.

“There was a time this place was filled with emergency aid. Our helicopters were ferrying relief goods to remote areas,” he said. “Now, almost all places are accessible by land.”

Signs of normalcy have begun to emerge. Battalions of displaced people have been mobilized under the cash-for-work program by state agencies and charity groups to clear the trash.

Life-saving supplies

Colonies of white tents distributed by the UN refugee agency have mushroomed along roads, in spaces cleared of ruined homes. UNHCR has distributed relief supplies to more than 240,000 people to date. It has also provided tents, plastic sheets, mattresses and boots to some government departments to support affected staff as they resume work.

The task remains daunting and a lot more needs to be done. Helicopters and transport planes still crisscross the skies over Tacloban airport, carrying urgently needed supplies.

Carangan supervises services for these humanitarian airlifts. But for two weeks, he had been sidelined, a victim of the super storm. He nearly lost his life. The typhoon wiped out six one-story concrete buildings in his Tacloban base. Of his 70 men, three were killed, including one whose body was found 70 kilometres away. Two others are missing.

The PAF fatalities were among more than 6,000 Filipinos killed by Haiyan’s 315 kilometre per hour peak winds, the strongest cyclone on record to make landfall.

Carangan, a strapping six-footer sporting a crew cut, recalls that he had been involved in disaster relief preparations in Tacloban for three days, up until the night before the typhoon struck.

“All of us were at a loss at the meaning of typhoon surge at the time,” he said.

He would know soon enough. At 5 am on November 8, heavy rain began lashing the buildings. The men went out to watch the gathering storm.

“Tsunami-like waves”

“We could see the water steadily rushing toward us, seemingly moving upward,” Carangan said. “At that point we could not see anything and then we realized that the sea was upon us.”

As the rain became more violent, the men rushed indoor. Tsunami-like waves crashed at the airfield and inundated the buildings. In the colonel’s operations quarters, one grabbed an umbrella. The men used it to tear the ceiling. They climbed up there, only to find the roof gone. They grabbed at the rafters. And then the walls crumbled and the men fell into the raging water.

Carangan held on to a bolted triangular wooden truss and firmly held on to it. He knew it wouldn’t sink. He would bob in and out of the sea. He held his breath every time he was pulled underneath and prayed.

“I was twirled round and round. Some of the survivors later told me they could see me from a distance spinning in the water,” he said.

“At some point, I hit a coconut tree. When I looked up, I saw a boy hanging onto the top of the tree. Because I thought the water was continuing to rise, I told the boy to come down to me. We drifted on waves two to three metres high. I couldn’t see anything. My eyes hurt because of the seawater.”

He thought of his wife and three boys – aged from 17 to 10.

“I prayed and prayed. I would say, ‘Lord, if this is it, please take care of my family.’ I stopped praying only to talk to the boy. He would tell me, ‘Sir, I am sleepy. I want to sleep.’ I said to myself, he is probably sinking into hypothermia. I would yell at him not to sleep.”

Adrift at sea

After six hours at sea, the two finally drifted to the town of Basey, about four kilometres north of Tacloban. The storm had subsided. People were dazed. Dead bodies were lying around. Debris littered the area.

Carangan left the boy, Miguel, to a retired policewoman with instructions to turn him to authorities. The child was later reunited with his mother and grandfather.

With the road to Tacloban impassable, the colonel decided to head north to the army base at Catbalogan, hitching a ride after walking seven kilometres and spending the night at a police outpost at San Juanico Bridge.

There, an officer, his understudy at the Philippine Military Academy, where he graduated in 1992, put on his Facebook account, Carangan’s harrowing ordeal. The blog went viral.

The colonel has since become a sort of a rock star. He has shunned the limelight, refusing interviews with reporters. He insists he did not rescue the boy; rather the boy saved him.

“Maybe he’s the reason I’m still alive because God wants me to make sure this child will live,” he said.

Carangan turned 46 on November 24. “I’m now one year old,” he said, smiling.

Please make a donation today and help UNHCR continue to provide emergency relief for hundreds of thousands of Filipinos affected by Typhoon Haiyan.

Contact persons:
Marmie Liquigan (Manila), External Relations/PSFR, [email protected], +639189208765
Johanna Morden (Manila), External Relations, [email protected], +639173055573
Kent Bolisay (Tacloban), External Relations, [email protected], +639294577645