Agony flows from unwatched threat: a wall of water

By Todd Pitman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

"It was like a bomb — BOOM!" said her 23-year-old sister, Gennette Bacsal. "It felt like an earthquake."

The wave smashed through the windows and swept Eflide off her feet, sucking the 26-year-old under the swirling water. She frantically waved her arms, trying to find something to grasp. Her fingers closed around the power cord to the refrigerator. She held on as tight as she could and tried to pull herself to the surface, but the water only pushed her deeper.

She couldn't breathe. Couldn't think. Couldn't see. In her panic, she began swallowing water. Everything went black. She felt herself dying. She surrendered.

And then, a hand appeared — her father's. He grabbed her shirt and yanked her to the surface.

He hauled Eflide to the second floor of their home, where they waited along with Eflide's sisters and mother until the surge had passed.

Other family members were less fortunate. Relatives including Eflide and Gennette's brother, 38-year-old Gonathan Bacsal, had taken refuge in a church, but they fled as water rushed in. As they ran through nearby woods, a cousin was decapitated by a piece of metal that whizzed through the air.

Young and elderly relatives who could not swim were trapped by the rising water, but the family said Gonathan rescued many of them. He, too, was killed by debris: The storm blew several nails and a shard of metal into his neck.

As Alexa and her family stood on their dining table, they contemplated their own deaths. The water was at Alexa's chest, and her mother's chin.

"Where will we go? What can we hang on to?" Alexa cried.

They were still amazed by the flood. No typhoon could cause this, Alexa thought.

Then her mother was splashed by water on her lips. It was salty. It dawned on them: This was from the sea.

Fish flittered across Alexa's back, and she recoiled in a panic.

The family was at their very limit, and so, thankfully, was the storm. The water stopped rising, and began, very slowly, to recede. It was again knee-high by the time Alexa walked outside.

Their neighborhood, of barber shops and restaurants and homes and streets filled with small buses known here as jeepneys, was gone. There was only a vast sea of debris: wooden beams filled with nails, shattered toilets and glass, concrete rubble, uprooted trees, twisted power transformers.

Survivors wandered, dazed and wounded, covered in mud and grime. Many were barefoot with seeping gashes in their feet and bruises all over. Some covered their wounds with cloth, or diapers.

"Tacloban was unrecognizable," Alexa said. "It was as if Tacloban never existed at all."

There was something else in the flatted landscape: corpses. And five days after Haiyan leveled Tacloban, many are still there.

Scores of them lay at roadsides for authorities to retrieve, covered with whatever people could find — corrugated iron rooftop slabs, wooden planks, cardboard, a broken desk drawer.

Two bodies wrapped in white tarps lay on a bus-stop bench. Another sat on the ground below. People rolling luggage and carrying backpacks walked past, covering their mouths to protect against the sickly stench.

One orange dump truck moved through the city to collect the remains. Emergency workers unloaded a dozen of them at building that once sold souvenirs. In all, there were more than 170 bodies in black bags, spread side by side.

Bulldozers have cleared debris from most main streets, but the sidewalks are filled with everything imaginable: broken speakers, typewriters, cables, artificial Christmas trees.

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