When typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines a year ago and sea waters submerged parts of the city of Tacloban, one man grabbed a piece of wood – and floated into a tree where a boy had taken refuge. In his efforts to save the boy, he also saved himself.
Lt Col Fermin Carangan of the Philippine Air Force knew that a storm was coming and got his men up early to secure equipment at Tacloban airport. Soon the wind became too strong, and they retreated indoors. But then the water started flooding the airport building – and when it surged quickly above waist height, they knew something was seriously wrong.
“We could hear the sound of the roof being torn off by the wind,” says Carangan. “We just looked at each other…”
Then Carangan told the men to punch a hole through the ceiling and they climbed up on to the disintegrating roof. “I told my men to hold on to any piece of equipment that might help them float. And then suddenly, the walls of the building collapsed. One by one, my men started falling.”
He was swept past familiar buildings and homes behind the airport, and eventually bumped into a coconut tree.
“When I looked up, I saw a young boy clinging on the tree,” Carangan says. He was afraid the rising water would soon reach him and sweep him away, so he told the boy to climb down and hang on to the wood.
“Initially, he grabbed my neck like somebody drowning, but I was able to pluck his arms from around my neck and secure him on another side of the triangular wooden truss. I told him not to go near me so that we’ll have a chance to survive,” says Carangan.
The trick was balancing their makeshift raft. Hanging on to one side of what he describes as a right-angled triangle, Carangan explains how he used his body weight to the keep the seven-year-old above water. “The boy was practically lying face-down on the hypotenuse side of the triangle. I tried to push my side downwards so that the boy’s side would be popping out of the sea so that he could breathe.”
The two of them spent the next six hours being tossed and turned by the force of the waves.
They could tell from the movement of the water whether they were moving over flooded land or out at sea.
“When we were over land, the water was like being inside a washing machine. We were tumbling: the piece of wood at times was over me, at times I was over the piece of wood,” Carangan says. “In the sea it was much calmer, although the waves were still very high.”
They did not know where they were, what direction they were travelling in, or how long they were there for.
Carangan thought of his own three sons at home in Manila as he looked at the boy in front of him. All the time, he held on to the wooden truss so tightly that his left hand turned purple. “My thoughts were never to let go of that wood, no matter what,” he says.
At times, when his eyes were so swollen with seawater that he could barely see, the constant sound of the boy’s sobs became a comfort. “His crying made me aware that he was still around,” he says. “I was trying to pacify him, telling him that things will be all right… Whenever strong waves or tall waves passed us, I told him to hold on and never let go.”
As the boy started to develop signs of hypothermia, Carangan tried to keep him awake. “I yelled at him actually – I yelled at him not to go to sleep.” He kept him talking, and found out his name – Miguel Rulona – his age and a bit more about him. Miguel said he was from Manila, although his accent was local. His mother was in the capital, but he and his sister were staying with their grandparents in the village of San Jose, next to the airport.
Waves 3m (9ft) high were coming from all directions. “Luckily, the wooden truss that we were holding on to just went with the waves. Whenever it rose, we rose, too, and when it went down, we went down – but when it went down, we drank lots of seawater,” he says. “Even the rains were hurting us because they were very strong.”
Carangan spent most of his time in the water praying. “I was just trying to pray and pray – around 80% of the time I was praying, telling God everything and asking Him to look after my family if I’m gone,” he says.
Shortly after one of these prayers, Carangan saw the shape of a mountain. He told the boy they were near land.
Carangan started swimming, holding tightly on to the wood until they reached the beach. He thought it must be a small holiday resort as he saw only four tall houses. It was only later he realised that it was a small village, and the rest of the houses had been destroyed by the typhoon.
They had landed on the island of Samar, 4km (2.5 miles) from Tacloban airport, which is on the neighbouring island of Leyte. Their arrival went unnoticed among the general devastation – the area was littered with debris and dead bodies.
“I noticed that the people in the area were indifferent, they were not minding me at all,” says Carangan. “I asked them where I was. They told me I was in San Antonio, Basey, Samar. I was surprised.”
When the local villagers learned where Carangan was from, they were surprised too, and asked him how he got there.
He now focused on getting the boy to a safe place, and then returning to his unit. “I’m a military man so the first thought was to look for somebody in authority. Luckily, somebody living in the area was a policeman,” he says.
Carangan left Miguel with the police, after making sure he would get dry clothes, water and food, and that he would be handed over to the proper authorities.
Despite gashes on his right leg and a left foot swollen from a mixture of cuts and sea water, he then walked 7km (4.3 miles) to the police station at San Juanico bridge – the roads were impassable to traffic due to fallen trees and electricity posts. When he reached the bridge, he was disappointed to find that there was no way of getting back to Tacloban – and there wasn’t even a phone he could use.
“I was worrying how my wife will react if she hears that I am missing,” he says. He also worried about what had happened to his men.
He slept in the police station and the following day managed to get a lift to an army station in Catbalogan. Once there, he called his unit to let them know he was safe. Only then did he call his wife at their home outside Manila.
She was still unaware of the devastation of Tacloban. “Where have you been? I have been trying to contact you,” she said. Carangan was relieved. “My first thought was: ‘Great, she doesn’t know what has happened yet.’ I told her: ‘Whatever you hear in the news, don’t mind it.'” Then he hung up, not wanting to say more.
Two weeks later, Carangan returned to Tacloban to help with relief efforts. The airport had been destroyed, but he was relieved when it became clear that most of the men under his command had survived.
One day Miguel came to see him, together with his mother and grandfather. A military colleague who had heard Carangan’s story had helped to track the boy down and reunite him with his family – though his sister and grandmother were still missing.
Miguel did not say much. His mother said this had become normal. “His mother felt he was still traumatised,” says Carangan. “He would sometimes keep quiet, looking like he was still feeling the things that happened during the typhoon.”
Carangan touched Miguel on the head, but says he felt unable to show any emotions. “I was just happy to see the boy reunited with his mother and grandfather. I was just happy I could help someone,” he says.
“I told her I should be the one thanking the boy because I believe that if it were not for the boy, I might not have made it,” he says. “To inspire him to survive, I needed to be strong also. I believe the boy somehow gave me the strength to hold on and to try to survive.”
This career military man now has a new perspective on life. “I am trying to balance life with my work,” he says.
“I get to appreciate my kids a lot more these days – instead of working more, I am trying to spend quality time with them.”
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