A new breed of heroes
It was high noon, on a quiet Sunday. The only sound you could hear were the mid-day prayers said in this small but infamous village of Bangkal in Patikul in Sulu, known as a hotbed of terrorist groups. Suddenly, a thunderous roar from overhead broke the stillness, and within a few seconds, dark, thick smoke filled the air.
The Tausugs interrupted their meditations and ran outside, first checking that their own homes were safe, to see what caused the explosion.
Some 20 meters away was the crash site—a large plane was burning, and soldiers were spilling out of it, doubling over, some fighting for their lives. Some were already on the ground, bloody and seriously wounded. Some were already dead.
The day was July 4, 2021, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines had just experienced its worst tragedy when the newly acquired Lockheed C-130 Hercules, delivered to the Philippines only in February of this year, crashed in Bangkal. It left 52 people dead — 49 of them among the 96 passengers on board and three local residents. There were 51 injured, 47 of them military personnel.
Behind enemy lines
The soldiers still fighting for their lives knew they were in a bind. They had crashed in what was considered enemy territory, with Patikul the town where what remains of the Abu Sayyaf operate—but they also badly needed help. They’d heard stories and they were not good. If they cry for help, they’re dead. If they cried for help, they’d be dead. If they didn’t, they’d be dead.
Most of the soldiers in the aircraft had just completed their training. They were headed to Jolo, Sulu, for deployment. They were young, and many of them were on their first mission—and the war stories that had been handed down to them were of the killing of military men in Sulu.
So when they heard the pounding of feet as they lay on the ground, they didn’t know how to feel.
When they looked up, they saw Tausug villagers rushing to them.
The day was July 4, 2021, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines had just experienced its worst tragedy when the newly acquired Lockheed C-130 Hercules, delivered to the Philippines only in February of this year, crashed in Bangkal. It left 52 people dead and 51 injured.
Photos of that brave rescue are immortalized in newspapers. Ragged villagers carrying on their shoulders bleeding soldiers, as fire consumed the plane behind them. It wasn’t an easy rescue—bullets ricocheted around the area as guns went off, the fire setting off the ammunition as it engulfed the plane in flames.
To help the soldiers, the Tausug villagers had to put their lives on the line.
Heroes for heroes
As they recuperated in hospitals, the soldiers—many of whom said they never thought they would survive—wished they would one day get a chance to talk to their rescuers and thank them personally.
Not only were they able to thank them, the military trained them to be like their own. So last Nov. 5, the Tactical Operations Group Sultaw (TOG Sultaw) in partnership with Joint Task Force (JTF) Sulu, the Sulu Provincial Disaster Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO Sulu), and the 505th Search and Rescue Group, facilitated the closing ceremony of Search and Rescue Auxiliary Training (SARAT) CL 01-2021 with class name, “Tausug Heroes.”
This is how the Philippine Air Force thanked them—by training them, and making them full-fledged rescuers and first responders.
The activity, held at Sumadja Hall, Capitol Complex, Brgy Bangkal, Patikul, Sulu saw 50 students from different municipalities in Sulu, PDRRMO, Joint Task Force Sulu, and TOG Sultaw complete 16 days of rigid training.
The “Tausug Heroes” were declared graduates by Philippine Col. Dennis G. Estrella (GSC), wing commander of the Tactical Operations Wing Western Mindanao (TOW WestMin) and the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
And four months after that brave rescue, they are now qualified to perform Search and Rescue (SAR) duties. They are now already full-pledged and well-trained first responders/rescuers.
The graduates each received a Certificate of Completion, SAR Badge, and SAR Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) composed of sweat shirt, utility rope, gloves, snap link and whistle, and the students received Special Awards (Best in Swimming, Best in Rappelling, Best in Ropemanship, and Best in Academics).
Presiding officer Col. Dennis G Estrella PAF (GSC) says, “The Search and Rescue Auxiliary Training (SARAT) is one way to show appreciation by the Philippine Air Force to the Tausug heroes for their sacrifices and gallantry act displayed during the recent C-130 plane crash.” He also emphasized the significance of having knowledge in search and rescue in any eventuality to pre-empt more casualties. Estrella expressed gratitude and appreciation to the Sulu Provincial Government for the support and assistance they provided during the entire training.
Abdusakur Mahail Tan, the provincial governor of Sulu, conveyed his appreciation to TOG Sultaw and Philippine Air Force as a whole and JTF Sulu for conducting the SARAT Training.
He says he wishes for more Tausugs to go under training in Sulu to have more rescuers in every municipality, which is important in times of calamity, tragedy, or disaster.
It was a crash that claimed the lives of some of our bravest and brightest—but in some serendipitous way, it has given birth to shaping even braver men in small towns that we now know are no longer our enemies.