CORON, Palawan—In the gathering storm on Friday afternoon, Dutch diver Rinus Hiesalaar opted to stay put in their diving boat while his four colleagues sought shelter on Camanga Island.
That afternoon, there were no ominous signs yet of the fury of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” save for the occasional strong winds, fellow Dutch diver Miroslav Johannes Lavaleye recalled.
When Yolanda slammed into Palawan province hours later, the powerful storm roiled the sea, overturning the boat and tearing it away from its anchor and bringing it out in the open sea, he said, quoting witnesses.
The body of Hiesalaar, a 69-year-old taxi driver, was found floating at sea three days later.
He could be the first foreign fatality of Yolanda, and among the 12 fatalities in Coron, a diving and snorkeling haven where the cyclone made its last landfall before swirling to the West Philippine Sea.
“When the storm came in, it was a big, big storm,” Lavaleye, still clad in the black T-shirt and light brown short pants he had on when they took shelter in Camanga, said in an interview at the Coron coliseum.
After flying in on Nov. 4, the Dutch divers sailed for Apo Reef in the waters between Busuanga island and Mindoro province, where they spent days diving to see World War II shipwrecks.
“We went to Apo Reef, and we had a beautiful day over there,” said Lavaleye, 60, a road patrol mechanic, who was told about wonderful diving sites in 2004 by his Filipino wife Jennifer Tico who is from nearby Culion Island.
Caught in the storm
Since 2004, Lavaleye and his colleagues from the diving club O.J.C. have been flying out of the Netherlands to the Philippines and other countries to dive. He and Hiesalaar had been diving together way, way back.
That Friday, they decided to sail from Apo Reef to Maricaban because of the approaching storm. Along the way, one of the outriggers broke. While they were able to fix it, they decided to “hide” in the nearest Camanga Island.
After dropping anchor behind a fisherman’s boat, Lavaleye and the Dutch divers rode a smaller boat to shore and were offered to stay in a newly built nipa hut. Hiesalaar stayed in the boat, and so did the Filipino skipper and some of his crew members.
“We decided to go to the village to wait the storm out. Everyone got off, except for one (Hiesalaar). This guy said ‘No, no, I’m more comfortable here. Please let me stay,’” Lavaleye said. “He’s now dead because of that decision. It was his decision.”
When the boat capsized in the middle of a furious storm, the captain instructed everyone to swim by pairs to the shore. The captain and four of his crew members survived. Four other crewmen remained missing. On day, there was a report that the body of one of the crew had been fished out of the sea.
The storm was as fierce on the shore as it was at sea, Lavaleye said.
“We thought, ‘OK, this is our last minutes.’ The roof was flying, and the door was opening by itself. We said, ‘The next blow, it would be totally out. So, we go bye-bye,’” he said.
Somehow, the storm stopped. The next day, when they emerged from the hut, “We could see the devastation in Camanga. There was no house standing, except our house because it was new,” the Dutch diver said.
Their boat as well as the fisherman’s boat was also gone.
The rest of the fatalities in Coron were residents whose homes collapsed on them, including 2-month-old twins in Barangay (village) Malawig, and fishermen whose boats either capsized near shore or were hit by flying debris.
Mayor Clara Reyes estimated that 85 percent of the homes, business establishments, crops, fish cages and livestock were damaged. She put the damage at P5 billion to P10 billion.
“Of the 120 houses in our barangay, only two were left standing,” said Robert Capispisan, 55, a mini-bus driver. “We need tarps.”