On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (called Yolanda in the Philippines) made landfall in this nation of over 7100 islands. It unleashed its fury with sustained wind speeds of 165 mph and one-minute gusts nearing 200 mph. It was the strongest storm recorded at landfall, unofficially the strongest typhoon ever in terms of wind speed and the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record. 16 million people were affected, 6 million displaced, 1.9 million left homeless and more than 7,000 confirmed dead. Five of those who died were firefighters from the National Bureau of Fire Protection, who were engaged in life saving efforts when they were washed away in the 20′ storm surge. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced media and the constant overload of “reality TV” this event is now all but forgotten. However, the lives of countless Filipinos are still struggling to get their feet back on the ground and their lives back to normal.
In the aftermath of this storm all communication links were down in the affected areas and it took time for video clips and images to begin to emerge depicting the widespread damage. It wasn’t until days afterwards that I began to realize the significance of this event and felt the urge to go. Our Emergency Relief Team coordinator began sending out emails and making calls looking for volunteers as well as an in-country contact. A team of six Firefighters For Christ volunteers was eventually formed with representatives from Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and the LAFD (Ron Price, Luis Carlos and me). Our destination was Tacloban to assist a ministry called Kids International Ministry (KIM). Their primary ministry (in Manila) is to prevent human trafficking and getting at-risk youth off the streets, but following the typhoon they were coordinating various relief efforts in Tacloban. We thought our mission would be salvage and reconstruction, but our plans changed during a layover in Manila. After 17 hours aboard two planes, our third and final leg should have been a quick two-hour hop to Tacloban, but this airline would not allow our 1,000 pounds of gear to go with us. We could not leave it behind and were forced to forfeit our tickets.
Flexibility remains the key in all mission trips and we often refer to a scripture that says, “A man’s heart plans his way, but The LORD directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) After prayer for direction, we soon met a Cebu City firefighter in the airport. Some phone calls were made, and a few hours later three fire department vehicles arrived to take us back to their headquarters . . . two hours away. We learned that the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) is a national fire service with over 17,000 members. They are a paid department and stress formal education, requiring applicants to have at least a four-year college degree. We were picked up because the Fire Chief wanted to meet with us. We were met at their national headquarters by a 100-member recruit class lined up standing at attention. They greeted us by singing the Fireman’s Prayer. Well . . . I’ve seen it written on plaques, and have read it elsewhere, but never heard it sung before. It was amazing to hear, but sad to think that this would never happen in the good old “Land of the Free.” The Fire Chief and his staff treated us just short of royalty. They greeted us in dress uniforms, fed us, gave us gifts, put us up in a hotel, gave us a tour of their training center (700 recruits currently in training), and eventually arranged for our military C-130 flight to Tacloban. Luis and I got to spend our 33-year anniversary on the LAFD in the back of a C-130 enroute to Tacloban.
At the Tacloban airport we were again greeted by some BFP personnel, who drove us to their central station. When we finally met with the KIM representative, he said that instead of salvage/construction at one of their ministries, he had planned for us to work with the BFP doing ‘body retrievals’. This is gruesome work that the BFP has been tasked with since the disaster and their personnel were really in need of some relief and encouragement. Retrievals have only gotten worse since the typhoon. The ‘easy pickins’ have already been cleared away and now most bodies are entangled in huge debris piles (the remains of light construction blown apart and floated ashore). Retrievals are now less in volume, but more difficult in terms of entanglement and extraction and obviously in more advanced stages of decay.
Our first assignment was the most difficult. This body had been identified by family members much earlier, but previous attempts by the BFP proved unsuccessful (their tool cache was very limited). It was under a large ship, about 300 feet in length that had washed ashore. The debris field it was resting on was a mixture of wood, metal, and “other debris” and was highly compacted. It required considerable cutting to free the body intact, but was much appreciated by the family who watched. It helped bring some closure to their loss. The chainsaw and cordless reciprocating saws we used, along with a portable generator, water filtration kits, and other miscellaneous tools, were part of our cargo that we later donated to our BFP hosts.
We averaged about 6-7 body retrievals per day – no need to discuss the details. I would have never guessed that an FFC mission trip would focus on such work, but working alongside our brothers and sisters of the BFP built close relationships in a short period of time. Luis Carlos connected instantly . . . being half-Filipino and having lived a few years of his youth in Subic Bay. He was treated as if he was an older brother returning home for the holidays. Another team favorite was Ron Price, who in his own unique style, schooled-up some of our BFP hosts in American slang. In the end, our mission was accomplished. Some workload relief was provided, much encouragement given, and great relationships were made . . . some impacting lives for eternity.
By Dan Rodriquez, Captain II, FS 69