Flights of Hope

Sunday October 1, 2017

“Salamat Po!”… “Maraming salamat po!” These words resonated at the arrival area of NAIA Terminal 2 last September 20 as more than 100 distressed overseas Filipinos workers (OFWs) deplaned from a Philippine Airlines Airbus A340 jet that repatriated them from the Caribbean Sea islands that were hard hit by Hurricane Irma, the most catastrophic storm in the Atlantic since 2005.

Pierre John Capistrano, a native of Talisay, Cebu who worked as a nurse in Anguilla in the Caribbean, is one of the repatriates who was welcomed by the government and PAL officials at the terminal. Clad in gray walking shorts and a black round-collar shirt, Pierre was teary eyed as he related the story of how Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on the island paradise.

“Nandun ako sa second floor ng apartment na tinitirahan ko. On the day the hurricane hit, I saw giant tornadoes whirling outside the streets. Then it hit the building where I was staying. Our concrete apartment, a hurricane-proof building, was shaking so strong as if there was an earthquake. The winds banged and eventually broke the glass windows around my room. Good thing I was not hurt. Nagtago ako sa sofa at mga cabinet,” relates Pierre of that dreadful day.

“Devastated ang island. The economy is down as the territory relies heavily on tourism. No job, no power, no water. Safety was also a concern as people started looting,” added Pierre who was able to save only a backpack of clothes after the hurricane.

Pierre, who has only been working on the island for a year, was grateful for the immediate arrival of the PAL repatriation flight that was arranged by the Department of Foreign Affairs through the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC. “Wala akong masabi sa mabilis na tulong na ipinaabot sa amin ng gobyerno natin. It was service with a heart. Makikita mo na hindi lang sila tumutulong dahil trabaho nila but they were helping because they were sincerely concerned for us.”

He shared how overjoyed he was upon seeing the PAL plane on the tarmac of the Luis Munoz Marin airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He felt that he was already home. “Nung nakita ko yung buntot ng eroplano ng PAL sa Puerto Rico airport I felt relieved kasi I know I am going home na talaga.” “This is it!” sabi ko. Naisip ko agad ang pamilya ko. Lalu na nung nakita ko ang mga PAL crew, feeling ko parang nasa Pilipinas na ako! Masarap ang feeling nung binati kami ng mga flight attendants. Kinausap nila kami at kinumusta.

Nakinig sila sa mga kwento namin. Binigay nila lahat – food, blanket, etc. para maging komportable kami. It was a very smooth 13.5 hour flight. Wala kaming masabi. Naramdaman namin nang sobra ang pagmamahal ng mga kababayan natin. Para sa akin, iyon ang importante kasi sa island kanya-kanya ang buhay namin doon,’’ shares Pierre.

Joel Natividad, who worked in a hospitality business in Sint Maarten for 20 years, also shared his experience of Hurricane Irma.

Joel was with his whole family when the hurricane hit. Fortunately, their house remained intact and Joel was able to help his Filipino kababayans who lost their homes and properties. “Nung tumama yung hurricane, na-witness ko how an island so beautiful was ravaged in a span of a few hours. Good thing I and my family were safe. The first thing I did was to help our kababayans whose houses were devastated.”

Witnessing chaos and devastation in the island, Joel immediately decided to sign up for repatriation. “Nakakatuwa isipin na hindi kami pinabayaan ng gobyerno ng Pilipinas. Hindi nila kami kinalimutan kahit nasa abroad kami. Nagpapasalamat kami sa tulong. Malaking tulong ito sa panibago naming simula. Babangon at babangon kami kahit anong mangyari, kahit anong dagok pa ng buhay,” he relates.

Two days after Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean islands including, Anguilla (UK), Barbados, Barbuda, British Virgin Islands (UK), Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy (France), Sint Maarten (Netherlands), Turks and Caicos Islands (UK), U. S. Virgin Islands, United States and other unknown islands, the Philippine government immediately launched assistance for the Filipinos trapped in the Caribbean. The aid came in two forms-folds – distribution of relief goods to the survivors and repatriation of our kababayans who wanted to fly home.

According to Consul Katrina Borja-Martin, secretariat head of the crisis management team, the government immediately launched the repatriation effort as many of our kababayans asked for it.

“They wrote to the government to help them immediately fly home as situation in the islands was bad,” she states.

Consul Borja said it was a very challenging task but was thankful as the spirit of bayanihan prevailed. The repatriation team encountered various obstacles along the way including the complex logistics involved in traveling to the hurricane-hit islands where most of the ports were destroyed. They had to deal with not just one country, as the repatriates were assigned in territories of various nations.

One major challenge was visa requirements. Many of the repatriates do not have US visas, which are required for a visit to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the converging point of the repatriates and the only airport remaining operational in the Caribbean. “The DFA had to work it out with the US government to allow our kababayans entry to Puerto Rico without visa. It was a tough negotiation. Good thing they were given a ‘port parole’ for humanitarian reasons in a few days and finally allowed entry to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the flight back home via San Francisco on PAL PR 8115,” relates Borja on how her team was able to bring home the 136 Filipinos composed of 129 adults and 7 infants.

The government is also providing livelihood assistance to the repatriates to help them start their lives again. According to Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Chief Hans Leo Cacdac, OWWA is providing economic and psycho-social assistance consisting of planning for sustenance initiatives or community-based revenue producing undertakings, skills training and finance facilitation, providing credit, counselling, stress debriefing and many others.

Cacdac thanked PAL as the airline has always been the government’s partner in saving our kababayans abroad. “Aside from the quality service that PAL delivers, bihasa na sila sa repatriation with decades of partnership with the government,” he says.

For Airbus A340 Chief Pilot Capt. Emmanuel ‘Butch’ Generoso, who led the flight crew in the repatriation, accepting these missions is priceless and rewarding. “I can do all repatriation flights even if you do not pay me. It is a rewarding experience saving the lives of our heroes!” he exclaims.

He recalls an emotional encounter when he saw a group of Filipino passengers at the Puerto Rico departure area waving at him and the rest of the crew. “They could not believe that they were finally flying home until they saw the PAL crew in uniform. I saw faces of relief. I gave them further reassurance and reiterated to them ‘iuuwi namin kayong lahat kahit anong mangyari’. Tears rolled down their cheeks as they thanked us for being there.”

There were challenges along the way: including an agonizingly slow trickle boarding process in the San Juan airport, as there were no people manning the terminal, and a cargo door that took time to close. Worse, they had to fly out immediately as another super hurricane was fast approaching. With everyone’s cooperation, including the heroic efforts of the Philippine government and the support team of PAL ground personnel in Manila and San Francisco, PR8115 finally took off from San Juan mere hours before Hurricane Maria arrived to crush Puerto Rico. After a long journey across the Western Atlantic, the continental U.S. and the Pacific Ocean, the repatriation flight landed in Manila, and our kababayans were safely home.

PAL, since its inception, has been the nation’s partner in times of crises. In Dec. 1941, barely in its one year of existence, PAL was drafted into the Phil. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Philippine Air Force. PAL American pilots flew from Aparri to Jolo carrying allied forces officers, payrolls, medicine and other urgently needed supplies. After World War II, PAL helped rebuild the nation from ashes with missionary flights to various remote islands in Mindanao.

In 1980, PAL was called upon to evacuate OFWs from Amman and Kuwait following the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq. Five flights brought some 1,100 workers home. One of the biggest repatriations it conducted was during the Gulf War in 1990 where PAL evacuated more than 10,000 OFWs from the Middle East on board 30 flights. It was the largest of its kind in PAL history.

In 1990, the airline evacuated refugees from Baguio after a killer quake struck the city. In 2013, PAL, through the airline’s corporate social responsibility arm, PAL Foundation, flew more than 300 tons of cargo and thousands of rescue personnel to Tacloban to provide aid to Typhoon Yolanda victims. It also carried rescue and relief aid to Bohol after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the province in the same year. Also in 2013, PAL flew about 30 orphaned Muslim children from Cagayan to Manila after the Zamboanga siege.

“For more than seven decades, Philippine Airlines has been the wings of a nation, playing its part to airlift Filipinos in times of armed conflict and calamities. We remain committed to this role – serve our kababayans in times of need so they can rebuild their lives,” said PAL President Jaime J. Bautista.

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