George Agustin had time to stream a quick Facebook Live video of himself and his four colleagues from Bulacan’s disaster management office on Sunday as the rescue team rushed for San Miguel town on a mission to save people from the wrath of Supertyphoon “Karding” (international name: Noru).“Wait for us; we will be there,” a beaming Agustin assured the residents during his broadcast.
Those words, poignant in retrospect, would be among his last. Hours later, the five veteran rescuers — Agustin, 45; Troy Justin Agustin, 30; Marby Bartolome, 37; Narciso Calayag Jr., 33; and Jerson Resurreccion, 33 — were found lifeless, their bodies scattered around Sitio Banga-Banga in Barangay Camias, one of the villages battered by Karding in San Miguel.
Eyewitnesses said a concrete wall at a gasoline station collapsed on the group, as strong currents engulfed and swept them away.
On Tuesday, the five members of the Bulacan Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (PDRRMO) were hailed as heroes for giving up their lives in service. The Philippine flag was flown at half-staff in front of the provincial capitol in Malolos City in their honor on Monday.
“They embody the best qualities of true Bulacan natives. Public safety is more than just a job; it’s a call to serve,” Bulacan Gov. Daniel Fernando said in a statement.
Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos saluted the five “for responding to the call of duty and rendering an unequivocal testament of genuine public service even at the expense of their own lives.”
Karding left a trail of death and destruction across Luzon, with eight dead as of this writing, including the five Bulacan rescuers, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said on Tuesday.
The two other deaths, from drowning, were recorded in Cabangan and San Felipe towns in Zambales, while a third person died in a landslide in Burdeos, Quezon.
Three fishermen from Mercedes town in Camarines Norte are still missing, the NDRRMC said.
Karding, which left the Philippine area of responsibility on Monday night, was the strongest storm to hit the country this year, packing maximum sustained winds of 195 kilometers per hour and gusts of up to 240 kph at its peak.
It displaced some 46,000 individuals, or 12,352 families, now sheltering in 976 evacuation centers across Metro Manila, Cordillera Administrative Region, Ilocos region, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Mimaropa and Bicol.
A total of 32 cities and municipalities were placed under a state of calamity, allowing the local government units to tap calamity funds to address the immediate needs of residents and control the prices of essential goods, the NDRRMC said.
The Department of Agriculture initially reported P160.1 million in farm and livestock losses, although higher estimates were still coming from the provinces.
“Our agriculture suffered most from this typhoon. P160 million worth of damage to agriculture has been reported by our department concerned and close to 3,780 affected farmers and fisherfolk,” NDRRMC spokesperson Raffy Alejandro said on television.
Amid widespread destruction, the tragic fate of the five-member Bulacan rescue team captured much of the public’s attention.
In an interview, Fernando said the five were being ferried by an Army truck but it was unable to cross heavily flooded Barangay Sta. Ines, forcing them to transfer to a rubber boat.
The exact cause of their deaths remained unclear and an autopsy was under way.
According to the governor, they may have been killed after being dragged by strong currents, or electrocuted.
For Felicisima Mungcal, the PDRRMO head, the rescuers’ deaths came as a “shock” and that “words can’t express our grief and sadness.”
The team made its last contact with the Bulacan PDRRMO by radio past 1 a.m. on Monday.
Praising the five for their “invaluable service to the public especially in times of calamity,” Abalos said: “May we all find inspiration in their dedication to duty and be comforted that their lives were not wasted and were lived for the service of their fellow Filipinos.” Fernando assured the grieving families of benefits, including those intended for fire or disaster victims, along with a personal donation.
Three senators also honored the rescuers’ heroism
In a resolution, Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. sought “to recognize and honor the relentless spirit and heroism of the five Bulacan PDRRMO rescuers.”
“We continue to recognize and acknowledge the extraordinary bravery and commitment of those in the front lines of rescue missions during calamities as they continue to fulfill their duties in the face of death,” his resolution read in part.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said the rescuers’ fate showed the urgency of passing a bill creating the “Department of Disaster Resilience.”
But Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva had a different take as he noted that the five rescuers were all casual workers of the provincial government.
At a press briefing, the senator said the Bulacan tragedy should compel the Civil Service Commission (CSC) to address “contractualization,” or short-term hirings, in government.
“It’s really disheartening that five of our heroes had to sacrifice their lives to arouse our interest to attend to what is most important for our nation,” he said.
Citing figures from the CSC, Villanueva said the government employs a total of 642,077 workers as job-order and contract-of-service employees as of June 30.
Yet, of 1.9 million positions in the bureaucracy, some 171,000 positions, or 9.4 percent, are unfilled, he said.
—WITH A REPORT FROM MELVIN GASCON