PALO, Leyte—On land, polio victim Wendell Corregidor cannot walk without help. But in the water, he swims like a fish, a feat that enabled him to save 10 people, including six children, from drowning as gigantic storm surges generated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda” inundated villages here last Nov. 8.
Three months after the monster typhoon struck and killed more than 6,000 people in Leyte and Samar provinces, Corregidor’s tale of unusual courage and heroism despite his obvious disability has gained for him folk hero status in the coastal village of Baras in this town where he has become the subject of street corner conversations and text messages that have gone viral.
But Corregidor is no ordinary polio victim. He is a 36-year-old ex-paralympian whose exploits in the swimming pool have resulted in his taking home several gold medals from swimming competitions for the disabled around the country.
“He plucked our babies from the waters like they were dolls,” said Rosanna Panubio, 23, who, together with her then
6-month-old baby Tristan Jade, was saved by Corregidor.
At least one of those he saved, 5-year-old housewife Fe de la Cruz, wept openly in front of him after the storm had subsided and the wall of water had receded. He also rescued her and her daughter Apilyn, 14.
“She (De la Cruz) knew that she and her daughter were alive because of Wendell,” said 26-year-old housewife Criselda Panubio, who witnessed the moving scene. Panubio and her baby Keisha Lorraine, then 1-year-old, were also rescued by Corregidor.
Corregidor also rescued his aunt, Leonida Encina, 52, and his nephews, Nelmar Pineda,12, and Mark Neil Pineda, 9.
Strength from God
“God gave me extra strength on that day. But my whole body ached for a month,” Corregidor said, explaining his almost superhuman feat.
Largely ignored by the local press and denied kudos by selfish politicians, Corregidor has found comfort and solace in the praise and eternal gratitude of the mostly poor women and children he has saved.
Asked who saved her from drowning, 5-year-old Ella Rose Duque’s eyes lit up and she shouted, “Wendell!”
Stricken with asthma, Duque struggled between deep labored breaths outside his family’s tent to shout out the name of her savior.
Duque, a kindergartner, is the sixth child and 10th person saved by Corregidor.
“His story needs to be told, otherwise it would be a kind of historical injustice,” said Patrio Barca, also a polio victim and spokesperson of people with disabilities in Leyte.
The product of the union between a local street toughie and a barrio lass, Corregidor was struck with polio before his second birthday.
When his father, Roberto Carable, left his mother, Presentacion Corregidor, and a younger brother, Nelson, died of malaria, his mother left him to look for greener pastures in Manila.
With his mother gone, Wendell was taken care of by his grandmother, Alejandra, who took in laundry to provide for her paraplegic grandson.
His grandmother used to take him to nearby Aloha Beach and bury his spindly legs in the hot sand, hoping to wake up their weak muscles.
“My Nanay Anlang (Alejandra’s nickname) loved me unconditionally, even for what I am,” said Corregidor, whose unusually thin legs belie a muscular upper torso.
When his 77-year-old grandmother died in 1997, Corregidor drifted from one foster home to another with the help of neighbors and relatives.
Then at age 12, he found that he could swim even faster than other able-bodied adults.
In a few years, he became a star athlete on the Leyte team for competitions sponsored by Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled (Philspada).
But the inner pain of being abandoned by his mother and the death of his father from tuberculosis in 2012 made him lonely.
He planned ways to be reunited with his mother. That chance came on
March 19, 2013, when Philspada held its yearly meet in Sta. Cruz town, Laguna province, near the town of Pagsanjan where his mother now lives with her new family.
On a dusty highway in Pagsanjan, Corregidor met her long-lost mother for the first time. They embraced tightly, their cries of mutual affection drowned out by the noise of jeepneys speeding by.
That night, after a drink of coconut wine, the aggrieved son poured out his pain and frustrations, accusing his mother of abandoning him.
“It was all full of drama. We were both crying without end,” Corregidor said.
Making up for lost time
Happy that they had been reunited, mother and son made up for lost time. The next day in Sta. Cruz, Presentacion cheered her son on in the Philspada swimming competitions, and he went on to win two golds.
“It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Corregidor said.
But despite his rise from poverty, overcoming the social stigma of his disability with his success in competitive sports, and becoming one of the unlikely heroes of Yolanda, his happiness is incomplete.
“I’m getting old. I need a girlfriend,” Corregidor said, adding that he will use his newfound popularity to look for a wife.
As a volunteer for Oxfam, Corregidor now walks around aided by a pair of aluminum crutches as he lists possible recipients for a typhoon relief program by the British charity group.
Last Thursday, Corregidor sauntered into a gaggle of noisy teenage girls gathering around him as if he were Justin Bieber.
“Life is beautiful,” Corregidor said, flashing a toothless smile.
The 10 people he saved from the raging waters unleashed by a monster storm could not agree more.