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'Winnie' leaves hundreds dead
Updated 03:42am (Mla time) Dec 01, 2004
By Delfin Mallari Jr., Volt Contreras, Luige del Puerto
Inquirer News Service

TWENTY-YEAR-OLD Dante Runes and his wife Florence, nine months pregnant, were the lucky ones. They survived a murderous flood that swept them two towns away as they clung to a water jug and a banana trunk until a boatman rescued them.

Others didn't make it.

Officials said more than 300 people were killed -- many of them drowned and some others electrocuted or crushed by landslides -- in the wake of tropical depression "Winnie" that lashed several provinces of Luzon and Metro Manila with awesome deadliness from Monday until yesterday.

The Runeses, swept from their home in Rodriguez (formerly Montalban) town, Rizal province, on Monday night and rescued later in Marikina City, survived two hours in the raging Marikina River on pure grit and prayers.

"My body was getting numb ... I was ready to give up," Dante told the Inquirer.

"I told him, 'No, you cannot give up. You must not give up ... for us,'" said Florence, who is due to deliver anytime.

At midnight, the couple and 14-year-old neighbor J.R. Mancero were fished out by a Marikina resident tending to a carabao (water buffalo) who had heard their screams from the river. He maneuvered a banca (outrigger) and brought them ashore.

"We don't know who he is. We forgot to ask his name," Runes said.

Winnie brought nothing but death and misery elsewhere, especially to Quezon, one of the hardest-hit provinces.

In the town of Real alone in Quezon province, 114 were killed, according to Social Welfare Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman. One hundred died in Infanta town and 92 others in General Nakar town. About 150 were also missing in Real, she said.

At least 19 died in barangay Paltik, Dingalan town, Aurora province; eight were killed in Rodriguez and Pililla towns in Rizal; and three in Bulacan province, the National Disaster Coordinating Council said.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who had gone to Laos to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, cut short her schedule by two hours and flew back here last night.

She was expected to arrive in Manila at about 11 last night and visit the devastated areas today, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said.

Winnie struck just a week after Typhoons Unding and Violeta also battered the country, leaving about 160 dead or missing.

Winnie had moved into the South China Sea by yesterday morning but a more powerful storm, Yoyong (international codename: “Nanmadol”), was on course to hit a wider swath of the country possibly tomorrow. It was gathering strength as it approached the east coast.

Death toll may rise

Police said they feared the death toll would rise as they and local officials continued to receive reports of devastation from affected areas through two-way radios and cell phones after the floods destroyed other means of communications.

Earlier in the day, General Nakar Mayor Hernando Avellaneda said 10 people died in floods and landslides in his town.

"More persons were reported buried in Barangay Masikap but the roads going to the area are impassable. Only the military helicopters could bring us to the site," Avellaneda said. He pleaded to a helicopter pilot to bring rescuers to the landslide sites but gusty winds prevented the pilot from taking off.

Real and Infanta towns were isolated. All roads between these two towns were rendered impassable by landslides along the highways.

Rampaging waters also washed out bridges.

A local television station showed 13 bodies piled up on a road in the town of Real.

The base of a newly built concrete bridge over the Agus River was smashed by huge logs.

"All the houses in the coastal villages of my town were wiped out," Avellaneda said.

"What you can hear all over the town were cries of cold, hungry children. Most of them are already sick. There were no dry clothes to change the wet ones they had on their bodies. We need help and make it fast," he said.

Southern Luzon Command chief Major General Pedro Cabuay and several Quezon police officials tried to reach Infanta but the helicopter could not find a dry landing spot as the whole town was submerged in water.

In Real town, Fr. Charlito Collendrez of the Prelature of Infanta was swept away by the flood while trying to tie a rope which people he was rescuing could hold on to. He was later found dead.

Avellaneda feared the many missing in his town were already dead.

Not a single house

Not a single house was left in Sitio Matatambo, Sitio Boulevard and Sitio Puting Bato in Barangay Umiray, which was submerged in water.

"Some buses were carried by floods into the sea," Quezon police Superintendent Reuben Theodore Sindac said.

Winnie's rains also flooded 26 towns and 88 barangays in Bulacan and Nueva Ecija provinces in Region III, Rizal and Metro Manila.

Floods as deep as 8 feet swamped Barangay Pias in General Tinio town, Nueva Ecija.

On the national highway near Gapan in Nueva Ecija, about 100 passengers were rescued after being stranded for hours on top of three buses stuck in deep floodwaters.

A woman passenger on one bus frantically called radio station dzRH, saying raging floodwaters were rising close to the bus' windows.

Rescue efforts were hampered by landslides blocking roads and a lack of helicopters.

"It's unbelievable how the rescuers have been unable to reach these areas because the bridges have been broken down and there are very strong currents they are dealing with so the rubber boats also cannot go through," said Soliman.

Surrounded by water

The Runeses were sleeping soundly in Sitio Sabah, Barangay San Jose in Rodriguez, Rizal, when their parents woke them up, warning of imminent flooding.

Their home was about 100 meters away from the river. Looking out, the couple saw they had nowhere to go. They were trapped, surrounded by water.

"So we went to the rooftop. I could see around 30 more people on the rooftops ... all my neighbors," Runes said.

One by one, the houses crumbled like sand castles hit by forceful waves. In a flash, the couple found themselves in the murky waters, along with several other people. It was dark, and cold.

As their home crashed, Runes said he held on to his wife but lost track of their parents in the ensuing chaos. They didn't know how but the couple managed to grab the banana trunk and hang on to it.

"While the river was carrying us, I told my wife to pray to God. Only He knew whether we were going to die that night or not," Runes said.

When they reached the Marikina portion of the river, the couple saw J.R. Mancero. The boy had been clinging to a piece of styrofoam. They swam near him and grabbed him.

With J.R., trying to stay afloat became even more difficult, according to Dante. But he kept telling them not to let go of each other.

Prayers answered

All they could do was let the flood swallow them or ask God to rescue them, Runes said. There was little hope.

By midnight, the water had risen to 17 meters and three hours later, to 19.3 meters.

They were fortunate -- their prayers were answered.

Upstream, another couple struggled to live, but failed.

Neighbors found the bodies of Gilbert and Rina Baybayan, 24 and 20, respectively, also of Sitio Sabah in Rodriguez, Rizal, on the bank of the river the next day.

Their bodies were discovered not far from each other. Relatives remarked how they had tried to hold on to each other even in death.

Runes, Florence and J.R. hit a small island near the bank of the river shortly before midnight.

"Then we saw this man. We cried to him. He heard us and trained his flashlight on us," Runes said.

"He had a banca and used it to get to us," he said, adding that the man's arms must have been very strong to withstand the current.

Who was the man?

Runes said he did not know who the man was. "He was wearing an undershirt and jeans and was around 50 years old or more," he said.

At the evacuation center, J.R. sobbed incessantly. He was half-naked when fished out.

He still does not know what happened to his parents, Lilia and Santos, and to his aunt Lilia and 7-year-old niece Leslie Ann.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap said he expected damage to crops to be minimal as most rice farmers in northern Luzon, the main rice-growing area, had already harvested this season's crop.

The most destructive was Typhoon Thelma, which struck Leyte island in November 1991 and unleashed floods in Ormoc City that drowned about 5,000 people.

Originally posted: 1:04 AM

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