By Nikko Dizon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Army Pfc. Albert Fuyonan should have been celebrating his wedding at a church in Tagum City in Davao del Norte on Saturday instead of being confined in a hospital.
His company commander, Lt. Alex Daezeta, is also confined at the Armed Forces of the Philippines Medical Center in Quezon City but is raring to return to action in typhoon-battered New Bataan, where, he said, “we fell… we will rise again.”
But it was Fuyonan’s bride to be, Rowena, that was on his mind on Saturday.
Rowena does not mind that her wedding had to be postponed and her gown kept in the meantime.
What’s important is her fiancé is alive and well, after being swept away by the flash flood that devastated New Bataan town in Compostela Valley.
“I knew in my heart that he was going to live,” Rowena said, standing beside Poypoy, Fuyonan’s nickname, at the hospital.
Although she was composed while she was waiting for word about Fuyonan in the aftermath of Typhoon “Pablo,” Rowena just cried and cried when they finally saw each other at a hospital in Davao.
Fuyonan is recuperating at AFP Medical Center, along with Deazeta and his platoon leader, Lt. Jose Enrico Nuas.
The three men are among the 22 soldiers from Charlie Company of the Army’s 66th Infantry Battalion who survived after they were swept away by floodwaters, along with the residents of Barangay Andap.
Four soldiers were killed and seven others remain missing, Deazeta told the Inquirer.
“We’ve accepted the fact that as soldiers, we can die anytime. What’s important was their bodies were recovered for the sake of their families,” Deazeta said.
Deazeta, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class 2007, saw combat in previous assignments.
But he said Typhoon Pablo brought him face to face with the most formidable enemy he ever encountered. Against the fury of nature, Deazeta didn’t stand a chance.
Winning hearts and minds
Two platoons of Charlie Company were assigned to Barangay Andap in New Bataan, one each stationed on opposite sides of the mountain.
Deazeta, the company commander, said he and his men had been in Barangay Andap as part of the military’s Internal Peace and Security Plan Bayanihan since July.
In the past five months, the soldiers developed a livelihood program for the residents, particularly the young people.
Deazeta said he and his men did feasibility studies before introducing programs so that these would be sustainable and the residents could really earn from them and improve their lives long after the military had left the town.
By December, the unit had already reserved 2,000 fingerlings of catfish and tilapia. “We were just waiting for the materials to be used to build the fish pens in the school,” Deazeta said.
Charlie Company had also developed a cooperative project for the military’s auxiliary soldiers, also known as Cafgus, and their families. Deazeta said they were going to set up a sari-sari store that would sell goods at lower prices.
Everything was looking bright for the community and the soldiers. Deazeta said nothing could make the soldiers happier than the residents’ smiles and greetings of “Hello.”
On Dec. 3, Deazeta said the company was alerted for possible rescue operations as Pablo barreled toward the region.
On the southeastern portion of the mountain, where Deazeta and one platoon were stationed, residents went down to seek shelter in the center of the village, regarded as the safest place in the area.
“Signal No. 2 was announced on television that night. But there was very little rain and the people were thinking, ‘This is it?’” Deazeta recalled.
Morning came, and so did heavy rains. “At around 7 a.m., we heard a grinding sound from the top of the mountain. It was faint at first but then it began to get louder. We decided to evacuate the people,” Deazeta said.
By then, all communication signals were down as the first typhoon to hit the area approached with peak winds of up to 200 kilometers per hour. The soldier could not use even their cell phones.
Deazeta had around 40 men with him and more than a hundred residents who had sought shelter in the multipurpose hall, the Catholic and Baptist churches, the senior citizens’ hall, among other shelters.
The soldiers packed people into the KM 450 truck. Lieutenant Nuas and another soldier hung at the back to assist the evacuees.
Waves kept on coming
Deazeta instructed Nuas to ask for more trucks from the battalion headquarters to evacuate the people in Barangay Andap. It was Nuas’ first assignment on the field after graduating from the military academy earlier this year.
“But suddenly, we saw [floodwater] about two feet high coming. We knew that the truck, with its weight and the people in it, would hold in the water,” Deazeta said.
But since Nuas and the other soldier were only hanging on the vehicle, they had to jump and run back to the multipurpose hall where Deazeta was.
To their surprise, it was not just floodwater. The water carried mud, logs and boulders along with it. The flood swept the truck, which flipped to its side. Then the water subsided, allowing the soldiers to run to it and pull out the people to safety.
Just as everybody had reached the multipurpose hall, another rush of floodwater came. “It was a wave,” Deazeta said. Everybody watched the truck bob up and down and finally disappear.
Then the waves came one after another, Deazeta said. He clambered up to the roof of the hall to check where they could all move because he knew the hall wouldn’t stand in the powerful onrush of floodwater.
Like being in a blender
But floodwater enveloped the whole place, trapping everybody. They watched as floodwater swept the barangay hall away. Deazeta knew they were all trapped.
Nuas and Fuyonan were also looking for higher ground when another wave swept toward the multipurpose hall, Nuas turned to the soldiers and the people and screamed, “Talon (Jump)!”
He saw four soldiers jump with him. No resident followed. Just as they jumped, the water swallowed Nuas and Fuyonan.
On the roof, Deazeta felt the hall shake and crash. And he, too, was swept away.
Also washed away were Pfc. Ramil Pedrero, 27, his wife Jaysyl and their year-old daughter, Jasmine.
Pedrero and his wife would get separated in the flood but find each other later. Jasmine’s body has not been recovered.
“It felt like being inside a blender. You’re twisting and turning, and there’s mud, rocks and logs hitting you,” Nuas said.
Deazeta felt it would never end, being dragged by the current. He also felt being pinned between two logs. “I was getting very tired. I just surrendered everything to the higher being,” Deazeta said.
Bright light, helping hand
At that moment, he closed his eyes. And then there was a bright light and what he figured was a left hand reaching out to him. He reached back and held on to the hand. When he opened his eyes, he was hanging on to the roots of an uprooted tree. Mustering all his strength, he pulled himself out of the mud.
When he looked up, there was a church in front of him. “I don’t go to church regularly. But I pray in my own way. I call the higher being, ‘best friend,’” Deazeta said.
He was naked because the strong current ripped his uniform apart and was able to reach an empty house where he found clothes. He later heard people coming and he asked for help.
Nuas called out to Jehovah for help. Fuyonan saw a bright light as he was about to give up but a fallen coconut tree came with the torrent and he clung to it.
When the flood subsided, Nuas stood up and heard Fuyonan call out to him. But then another wave came. Determined to live, Nuas jumped to higher ground and anchored himself on a tree with his leg.
The two men were soon reunited with the other soldiers who were able to make it to higher ground, along with the other residents, the group that took refuge in the church.
It was then that they noticed a gaping wound on Fuyonan’s side. They treated the wound with guava leaves until help arrived.
Deazeta’s fiancée, Chantelle, said that he was all bruised and swollen when she saw him at the hospital. His eyes, ears and nose were all covered with mud.
We shall return
His injured men were with him, and when he tried to walk days later, they assisted him even if they, too, had their own injuries to worry about. Such brotherhood brought tears to Chantelle’s eyes.
“This could be our most boring Christmas because we will be spending it in the hospital but it is the most blessed Christmas,” Chantelle said, wiping away her tears.
Deazeta said the rest of the injured men of Charlie Company were recuperating in Davao. He said the Pedrero couple were the most traumatized because of the loss of their daughter.
But the rest are raring to go back to Barangay Andap to continue the work they have begun.
“We want to go back despite what happened to us. We want to turn the place into ‘Renewed’ Bataan. It was where we fell. It is where we will rise again,” Deazeta said.