‘He is our only child who lived’ | Inquirer News

‘He is our only child who lived’

By: - Reporter / @deejayapINQ
/ 02:04 AM December 22, 2011

Mike Herald Dela Gracia, 8 with his parents Helen and Arnaldo. EDWIN BACASMAS PHOTO

ILIGAN CITY—With the many lives lost on Bayug Island at the mouth of a river in this coastal heartland, a boy’s exceptional tale of survival is the only thing that comforts his folks in their time of sorrow.

To his parents, 8-year-old Mike Herald dela Gracia, who barely stands over a meter tall and cannot swim, will always be “the boy who lived”—the only one among five siblings to survive the horror of December 16 and the difficult hours that followed.


Helen and Arnaldo dela Gracia, who sell balut (boiled duck embryo) for a living, are grieving over the deaths of Shein, 7, and Aldrein, 2, and the presumed demise of Hana, 4, and Aldrein’s twin, Aljon, who have not been seen since the swirling waters triggered by Tropical Storm “Sendong” engulfed them on Friday night.


But every time they look at their eldest child, Mike, a playful third-grade pupil, they are encouraged in many ways.

“The burden lightens whenever we see him. He’s the one who makes us go on,” his mother, Helen, 29, said in a mix of Cebuano and Filipino at a cemetery in Barangay (village) Pala-o, where they watched, weeping, as Shein and Aldrein were buried in a mass grave.

“He is our last child. He’s the only one who lived,” she said.


This is an account of Mike’s extraordinary escape from death’s door, as narrated to the Inquirer by his parents:

The children were all asleep at 11 p.m., but a worried Helen watched the Mandulog River only 30 meters away from their house in the settlement of Purok 7-IS as the wind howled outside and rain lashed at their window.


Out selling balut in the streets of the mainland, her husband Arnaldo, 29, sensed that the weather could take a turn for the worse and hurried home to warn his family.

Past midnight, the floodwaters had seeped into the house up to their ankles. The couple heard people outside screaming “Tabang (Help)!” and decided to evacuate.

They feared that the house would not withstand the flood.

Arnaldo began to lead the children out, along with Helen’s mother, 66-year-old Purificacion. But rushing waves met them when they opened the door.

Arms linked together, the family sought refuge in a relative’s two-story house with a concrete foundation and wooden walls.

But the waters rose quickly, prodding them, along with other neighbors, to climb to the roof where they clung to each other, the children distributed among the adults.

They thought the floodwaters could not knock the house over. But just then, another house swept by the current plowed into the house, splitting it and scattering those perched on its rooftop in different directions.

Helen got snagged by a coconut tree, hugged the trunk, and hung on. She watched, horrified, as a log rolled toward Hana.

Except for Mike, the other children had not been seen.

Tangled in a branch

From his vantage point, Arnaldo, who had found a precarious foothold on another tree, could see Mike as the muddy waves tossed him forward.

The boy grabbed at a clump of weeds. But his shirt got tangled with a branch of a huge ipil-ipil tree.

Arnaldo watched in anguish as the tree started rolling until Mike disappeared from view.

Helen and Arnaldo were eventually reunited several meters away from their house. As they looked around at the flattened plain of brown that used to be their village, they guessed the terrible fates of their children, and of Helen’s mother.

“We thought they had all died,” Helen said, her voice breaking.

Then Helen heard a familiar young voice calling out from a tree that was lodged into another some distance away: “Ma, get me. I’m hungry.”

Arnaldo swam to the tree and towed Mike to the shore. Helen rushed to hug their son.

“We were so relieved that one of them is still alive,” she said.

But their joy was short-lived. They soon found Shein and Aldrein at a funeral parlor, one of several they visited in this city with a population of 300,000.

2 children, ma still missing

The two other children and Helen’s mother are still missing, among the more than 400 unaccounted for in the city, according to Mayor Lawrence Cruz.

As of Tuesday, the death toll in Iligan had reached just below 300, Cruz said.

“The other children could not have survived. They are 4 and 2 years old, what hope could they have?” Helen said.

‘He never let go’

Mike, a scrawny boy with a direct gaze and who dreams of becoming a soldier, never learned to swim; neither did his mother and siblings.

‘Nothing left in Bayug’

Asked how the boy was able to pull through, Helen said it was probably his steely determination to live. “He just never let go of that tree,” she said.

The Dela Gracia couple originally lived in Zamboanga del Sur province. But the birth of the twins two years ago forced them to move in with relatives on the island to make ends meet.

At the moment, they are staying at an evacuation center in Barangay Sta. Filomena. They do not plan to return to Bayug, whose population of more than 300 people is believed to have been drastically reduced by the storm.

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“I doubt if you’ll find a family there who did not lose anyone,” Helen said, relating stories of entire families who had perished together. “Nothing is left on Bayug.”

TAGS: Dumaguete, Flooding, iligan city, Mindanao

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