Intrepid Angels span world

By Michael Botur

Guardian Angel Andy Cawston at the virtual command centre. Photo / Michael Craig
Guardian Angel Andy Cawston at the virtual command centre. Photo / Michael Craig

The leader of New Zealand's Guardian Angels co-ordinated a recovery mission for a Gulf War veteran lost in one of the world's greatest storms.

Andy "Chieftain" Cawston sent a group of volunteers from four countries to find Ismael Fernandez after the American disappeared last year in Typhoon Haiyan which ravaged the Philippines on November 6, killing more than 6000 people.

Cawston says the mission was "Saving Private Ryan in real life" and he co-ordinated the operation from his Auckland home.

The Guardian Angels is an international movement of volunteer citizens who fight crime.

Fernandez, 43, from the Los Angeles Guardian Angels went into the teeth of the disaster zone of Tacloban to help, despite being ordered not to by Mike "Pinoy1" Zarate, the leader of a northern Philippine Guardian Angels.

"Ismael underestimated the power of the typhoon," Zarate says. "He died at 0600 hours, 30 minutes after he made a mercy call to my cellphone.

I missed the call."

When the Red Cross couldn't help search for Fernandez, Zarate contacted Cawston as the New Zealand chapter was the nearest to the Philippines.

Funds were raised to send Zarate by bus to Tacloban, where he desperately searched refugee camps. Messages scrawled on scraps of paper such as paper plates were photographed and sent back to Cawston.

"I pored over refugee names for hours in the hopes of finding Ismael's name among them," Cawston says.

"Sadly, I didn't - but I did find the name of a New Zealander [Annabelle Kelly, see story at right]."

Cawston hardly left his computer for two weeks as he tracked the efforts. "The search for Ismael became all-consuming," he says.

Fernandez was recovered in a carpark full of bodies and identified by his tattoos.

The multinational effort refocused on fundraising to get Fernandez's body back to his family in LA.

"Photos of Ismael shook me up pretty badly," Cawston says.

The Los Angeles and London Angels then took over until Fernandez was buried on December20.

Cawston had previously been involved tracking a suicidal person in London and sending an ambulance to rescue the woman - all from his home in Auckland.

Almost 2000 people remain missing in the Philippines.

Mum rejoices in vital message

Andy "Chieftain" Cawston trawled through hundreds of photos of desperate messages etched on scraps of paper. "I looked until my eyeballs were almost bleeding."

Among them was a message to Auckland woman Annabelle Kelly, whose two sons disappeared during the typhoon. Last week she was relieved to get word that her sons has survived.

A message, translated by the Guardian Angels, reads: "Call John Paul Juntilla in Norway (brother) and Anabelle Kelly (mother) in New Zealand. I'm okay, Jo-ann Juntilla, but I have no contact with Jabar Juntilla until now."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said no New Zealanders were killed in the typhoon.

- Herald on Sunday

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