By Keith Bacongco
DAVAO CITY – Despite the risk of massive landslides, Philippine Army troopers trekked for at least five hours to locate and rescue at least 21 villagers who had been trapped for five days in the mountainous Barangay Luayon in Makilala, North Cotabato on Sunday.
The residents, four of them children, have been trapped in the sitios of Bagong Silang and Kapatagan of Barangay Luayon since the October 29, when the magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck.
Pfc. Jacil Joe Tupa, member of the Army’s10th Infantry Division’s Emergency Response Company (ERC), said that the villagers were unable to evacuate to safer grounds as massive landslides triggered by the strong quake and aftershocks blocked the roads.
The landslides cut off Luayon and several other barangays in Makilala and were only accessible by foot. Thus, ERC troopers, along with elements of the 39th Infantry Battalion, started to hike on Saturday, November 2, to the mountainous village.
Of the 21 villagers, seven opted to walk with the 14-man team of Army responders as they had to bring along with them some livestock and motorcycles. The 14 other villagers were airlifted before noon to the Incident Command Team headquarters in Amas Capitol Compound in Kidapawan City.
Two of the children were sick and had to be immediately taken to the hospital.
Acting Vice Governor Shirlyn Macasarte-Villanueva, who joined the Army rescue team, said they only learned about the trapped villagers last November 1 through their fellow villagers who were able to evacuate on October 29.
Villanueva joined the rescuers onboard two Philippine Air Force helicopters – A Bell UH-1 of the 505th Search and Rescue Group and the Bell 412 helicopter, which is often used to transport VIPs, including President Duterte especially during the Marawi siege.
Bureau of Fire Protection personnel also joined the rescue team.
It was already dark when the rescue team arrived at the mountainous barangay, prompting them to spend the night with the trapped residents, Tupa said.
“We admit, we were a bit nervous because we know that it is a landslide-prone area and some cracks might cave in anytime,” he said in the local dialect.
While admitting that the terrain was quite difficult, Tupa added that they were able to locate the villagers by just following the road leading to the village.
After securing the landing zone, which sits on top of ridge surrounded by vegetation, it was then that the soldiers called for the airlift on Sunday morning.
The landing zone is at least 600 meters away from the houses of the villagers, the soldier added.
While the soldiers were confident that the pilots are skilled enough to find the landing zone, Tupa bared that they were also ready to escort all the villagers to safer grounds by foot had the helicopters failed to land.
“If there was no landing zone, we have to take a hike but the residents will be forced to leave some of their heavy belongings,” he said.
Tupa admitted being surprised by the skills of the Philippine Air Force pilots to land on top of ridge despite cracks all over.