Thousands struggle to escape Philippine city's horrors

By Rob Crilly, Tom Phillips

Flights arrive at Tacloban crammed with aid and then leave with people lucky enough to get a place on the plane. Photo / AP
Flights arrive at Tacloban crammed with aid and then leave with people lucky enough to get a place on the plane. Photo / AP

Walking with just one broken rubber flip-flop, Marcel Stutz, a farmer from a small village outside Tacloban, led his young children and wife past putrefying corpses down an avenue that would take them to the airport and to safety.

It was a grim scene from which he tried desperately to shield his two daughters as they headed for the airport - where some of the only buildings in the devastated city still remain.

Typhoon Haiyan had destroyed their home, a small ranch where they had lived for 18 years. They had spent three days trapped by water 2m deep from a swollen local river. Stutz said his farm had been turned into a mass graveyard, with washed-up bodies strewn over his land.

They finally managed to escape once the waters had receded and they made their way to Tacloban in search of food and water.

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"[It was] hell. We knew it was coming but not on this scale," said Stutz, 43, a Swiss national, who is married to a local woman. "The wind took the roof off. We were under the mattress, [pinned] against a concrete wall. Then suddenly the water started to rise. It was black.

"You looked out of the window and it was white like there was snow there. [The sound] was: 'Bang, bang, bang!' All around the coconut trees went 'crrr, crrr, crrrr'. Cracking like matches."

Thousands of the displaced were competing for space in Tacloban's main airport and the handful of other buildings in the city left standing. One heavily pregnant woman was forced to swim through 2m-high waves to reach the airport, where she knew it would be safer to give birth.

Aid agencies and the United Nations are using what is left as a makeshift camp.

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Every few hours American military C-130s arrive with pallets stacked with food, water and clothes, before filling up with those lucky enough to be given seats on their flights back to the capital, Manila.

Delma Rosel, 30, said she had been waiting with her three nephews for two days. As the typhoon struck her wood-framed house, along the coast from the airport, she faced an agonising decision: risk drowning inside her own home or swim out and face being battered by a torrent filled with downed trees and rubble.

"I was so scared," she said, "but my father held me and told me to be strong and that we would live."

The water rose in minutes, sending her floating to the ceiling of their home, and she watched as their plastic cutlery tray floated out in the current.

"We expected the wind and the rain, but this was like a tsunami," she said. "I said to my father, 'This is the end of our lives.' We were so lucky. Just as we were thinking we would have to swim away, it all ended. The water just left."

For now she must sleep sitting up, on bare concrete blocks beside the airport runway, watching the military transport planes rumble in and then back out.

Others had all made their own efforts to get by, huddling around fires as the sun went down and finding scraps of wood or metal frames on which to try to sleep just above the puddles of water. Each had an individual story of survival, of a home destroyed or loved one lost.

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Bilfrid Militante, 12, had insisted to his mother that he was old enough to stay behind with his father and the other men in his village, to guard their homes, she recalled. "I'm going to stay," he resolutely told Cristina Maceda-Militante, who pleaded with him to leave with her and escape to higher ground.

It was a decision that cost the boy his life. Like his father, Gilberto, and most of the men of the village of Candahug, just south of Tacloban City, Bilfrid was killed by the storm surges unleashed by Haiyan. His body was found 1km away, buried under a pile of debris.

"They said it would be okay," said his 37-year-old mother, standing in front of the newly built Palo Metropolitan Cathedral, where some 20 bodies - including her son's - were taken. "They said it would just be wind and no flooding. He was a papa's boy. We had high hopes for him. He was so good in class. The teachers always appreciated him."

Josefina Evangelista, 60, pleaded with reporters at Tacloban airport for help. She and her husband, Anthony, have been living in what was the arrivals lounge for days. She managed to escape with her family unhurt but her house was razed.

"We heard gunshots," she said. "We cannot stay there at night. It is too dangerous." They hope to escape to Cebu or Manila. "Tomorrow. Maybe. Please help us, sir."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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