“Madilim na yung paligid. Umuulan ng putik. Yung wipers ng truck namin, hindi na gumagana. Wala kaming choice kung hindi mag-drive nang nakalabas ang ulo sa bintana ng truck para makita yung daan. (It was dark. It was raining mud. Our trucks’ wipers were of no use. We had no choice but to drive while sticking our heads out our windows to see the road.)” These are the exact words of PFC Christian Dave O Aseñas (Inf) PA as he recounts his dreadful experience being one of the seven first responders from Transportation Battalion, Army Support Command, Philippine Army during Taal Volcano’s unforeseen eruption in January 12, Sunday.
After years of stillness, the beautiful Taal Volcano has once again displayed its destructive potentials when it erupted at around 2 o’clock that Sunday afternoon. No one, not even the experts, was able to predict this unfortunate event, leaving the people around it unprepared. Thousands of families, including their properties and livelihood were affected, putting the adjacent towns under a state of calamity, requiring the assistance of neighboring provinces and the national government in particular.
Upon receipt of orders from higher Headquarters, the Battalion Commander of the Transportation Battalion, Logistics Support Group, Army Support Command of the Philippine Army, LTC Christine Marie P Bayaona OS (GSC) PA, immediately ordered deployment of seven military vehicles driven by seven of her men to assist in the rescue operations in various towns of Batangas where the eruption of Taal was gravely felt. She said, being tasked to provide the transportation requirements of other units, branches of service, government and even private agencies, it is imperative for them to prepare for any eventualities – typhoons, earthquakes, transport strikes, and other unforeseen calamities just like the recent eruption of Taal. And as the Commanding Officer, other than the accomplishment of their mandated mission, the morale of her troops is her priority. “I cannot stop these unfortunate events from happening. All I can do is think of something that could boost the morale of my troops amidst these dreadful situations,” she said.
With nothing but duty in mind, and regardless of the lack of protective gears at hand, these seven men, together with their security escorts from the Headquarters Service Battalion, braved the odds without the slightest of hesitation, followed orders and went their way to accomplish their mission. PFC Jefferson N Elango (OS) PA, one of the first responders, recalls that while they were traversing South Luzon Expressway, they started to experience mild ashfall, which continued to worsen as they approached Sta Rosa Exit. Upon entering Sta Rosa, the slight ashfall turned into murky rain when the volcanic ash mixed with the rainfall. At that moment, the Highway Patrol prohibited all traffic to pass through except for their convoy. With the help of the Highway Patrol’s large torches they were able to reach Talisay, Batangas.
They were troubled to see how shattered the town was, all covered with sand and mud. “Basta pagdating namin doon, talagang maaawa ka sa kanila. Yung mga bata, tinatanggalan ng damit para dumulas lang yung buhangin sa katawan nila,” (When we got there, I felt sorry for them. They had to undress the kids to allow the sand to just slide off their bodies.), said PFC Elango. From there, they learned that there were still people at the foot of Taal who needed to be rescued and evacuated immediately before the situation got worse. They needed to race against time, hence, the team continued to navigate the muddy roads in spite of the incessant ashfall and intermittent earthquakes. Casting their worries aside, these soldiers pursued their mission of helping the residents of Laurel, Batangas from the dangers of the situation. They detailed that there was total darkness because of the heavy clouds and continuous ashfall. Other than the lights of their trucks and torches, they could also see lightning shooting up in all directions from Taal’s main crater. The once fresh air of this side of Batangas was polluted by the pungent odor of volcanic gases.
When they reached their destination, they had to pull out the residents from knee-deep sand, and even had to force those who refused to evacuate, and transport them to safer grounds. They did all these, unmindful of the imminent dangers in the area. “Hindi na namin inisip yung pansarili naming kaligtasan ng mga oras na yun. Basta ang misyon lang namin eh ang mai-rescue yung mga taong naipit doon,” (Our own safety was the least of our concern. All we wanted was to accomplish our mission of rescuing those who were affected by this calamity.), said PFC Marjun A Bautista (Inf) PA, one of the first responders.
PFC Elango recounts that it was early dawn of January 13 when they experienced the strongest volcanic eruption of Taal. “First time ko pong makaranas ng ganoon. Isang putok, dalawang talbog ng lupa. Yung truck na sinasakyan namin, nakaparada sa kalsadang katabi ng tubuhan. Pagsabog ng bulkan, nalipat yung truck sa mismong tubuhan,” (It was my first time to experience such. Every time the volcano exploded, the ground would shake twice. The military truck we were into was parked along the road beside a sugarcane land. When the volcano erupted, the truck was thrown into the sugarcane land.), he narrates. This, however, did not deter the soldiers from performing their duties. They continued their rescue operations, transporting as many residents that could possibly fit their trucks.
Nonetheless, some people just couldn’t help their prejudices. They were a bit flustered when one media personality who was posted in a safer location accusingly asked where they have been all this time when in fact they were busy rescuing people from identified dangerous zones.
They were hungry, emotionally charged, and exhausted, but the words of gratitude of the people they have rescued kept boosting their morale. They felt the concern of the rescued residents when one of them said, “Sir, matulog din muna kayo,” (Sir, you also have to get some sleep.), but seeing how awful their conditions were, they just could not. They were also overwhelmed by the support and high regard given by their Commanding Officer.
When asked if they would have joined the rescue operations if they were given the choice to say no, all of them unanimously answered yes because for them, other than the fact that this is part of their sworn duty, there’s no greater feeling than what they have felt when they were able to help the people in the area who were in dismal need.
Aside from the actual rescue operations, trucks and personnel of this Battalion were also tapped to haul donations from various agencies all over Metro Manila to the designated repacking sites and from there, to Batangas for immediate distribution.
Indeed, the Transportation Battalion played a very crucial role in this bewildering catastrophe, which ironically, rekindled the spirit of “bayanihan” and compassion, and even turned into a venue to discover the true Filipino warrior. As what PFC Aseñas has said to the victims: “Huwag kayong ma-low morale, andito lang kaming Philippine Army para sa inyo, (Don’t let your spirits wane. Your Philippine Army will always be here for you.).”