Part 11 - Philippines Journey: the day of body retrieval

19 September 2015

Once you choose hope, anything is possible.

During the night, I awoke to our tent shaking.  A raging storm was passing overhead.  I had been aware of water dripping on me for some time.  At one point, I remember Mace reaching over me to zip up the screen window.  But now, I was fully awake from our tent shaking back and forth.  The water was coming down hard.  Though through my exhaustion, I was able to fall back asleep.  For the rest of the night, I kept waking up with intense stomach pains.

Once morning finally arrived, I woke up to the sound of children running around the tent and peering in the windows.  I was not feeling well, so I continued drifting in and out of sleep.  The sound of a truck came rolling in right next to our tent.  Mace and Preston immediately exited the tent to see who had arrived.  From the open tent doors, I could see a little boy squatting underneath a broken pew, flipping through a hymn book.  It was such a small but powerful sight.  I could hear Mace and Preston talking to the men that arrived, so I came out of the tent as well.  The Salvation Army had arrived in the town, and the leader, Michael, was talking with Preston.  I sat down on a broken church pew behind the conversation, and a little girl came up to point an my pink toenails.  She and I continued to play until Mace came over to me.  I heard Preston introducing our group and explaining that we had some hundred-thousand relief packages that were expected to arrive in the next couple days, and we would need help distributing them.  Michael extended an invitation for us to join his group afterwards and continue passing out relief goods that he was having flown in.  With the ZEDRU crew, we were only planning on staying on the island for 3-4 days, so this presented an opportunity for us to stay longer. Then Mace and I began joking about alpha males, as we watched Preston and Mace converse with chins lifted, legs spread, chests confidently raised. 

After talking with Michael, we went inside to talk with the rest of our team and eat some breakfast.  I still was not feeling well so I laid down on a church pew inside.  I was just about to fall asleep when Mace came over to offer me some food, checking my forehead to see if I had a fever.  Sure enough, so he went to gather some medicine and electrolytes.  Mom Beth told him that I should stay behind today and recover.  When Mace came back to me, I had fallen asleep, so he shook me awake, and while I took his medicine, he told me what Mom Beth had said.  I told him that I really wanted to go out and work.  Mace thought for a second and then told me that if I promised to stay covered from the sun and stay hydrated, I could join them in work. 

I agreed, and we packed up our gear and headed out.  Later I found at the pains I had experienced all night in my stomach were the pains of starvation.  What a true experience to what these Filipinos were going through.

We headed over to the Municipal Center to see what work the Mayor thought would be best for us to assist with.  He told us that we should join Rescue Net in their efforts today.  They were going to the outskirts of town to do body retrieval.

Mace and I looked at each other to try and grasp what were were about to do.  I really was rather naive to the lack of preparation we had for the task at hand.  Later Mace told me how cadavers are a culture for disease and parasites, so it was a huge risk to our health.  Plus I was very weakened and not feeling well.

We followed instructions, and we walked to the outside of town and into the jungle debris.  We walked quite a ways before we reached the area we would be searching for bodies.  The way you find a dead body - the smell. A recoiling, stinging smell.

Everyone climbed through the wreckage, over fallen palm trees, and we spotted our first cadaver.  The corpse was flagged, and half the team continued to search, while the other half began moving the wreckage to pull out the body.  My body was so weak that I was unable to assist with the heavy moving.  I could only assist in scouting for body's.  As more bodies were flagged, the team worked steady to put them in bags and carry them to the roads.  The body's were so heavy that men each took a corner of the bag and slowly carried them out.

The air carried a spirit of somber solemnity as the team carried the dead.  I dragged further and further behind as my body continued to weaken.  Walter stayed by my side and told me more about his life as everyone continued carrying out body's.  Walter and I stood next to Preston, who was working with some men to uncover a man buried in a swamp.  I could see Mace climbing over a bridge of toppled homes and trees and working to remove a woman's body from where a roof had fallen on her legs and trapped her.  It took a long time to remove her body and walk around a swamp of water, surely full of diseases and bacteria.

As we returned to the street, a media crew was attempting to interview us and take pictures.  Mace was really bothered by their presence, and I attempted to hide behind him.  It seemed so extremely insensitive in light of the work we were performing, and it also felt so out of proper order, given that so much more relief work was still needing to be done, and somehow a reporting crew made it over the island faster than relief crews.

After all the bodies in that area had been carried to the road, we gathered at one of the few houses left standing.  An SUV was vertically sticking out of the building, which seemed pretty normal by this point.  On the side of this home was an exposed water line that was gushing clean water, so the team jumped in front of the water to wash off.

A Filipino military group arrived to help us transport the body's to the burial site.  The men loaded up the bodies while I was instructed to climb in the cab of the truck.  It was a large army truck, and I climbed into the passenger seat, joining the army driver and his extremely huge guns on the seat.  We made eye contact but didn't say anything to each other.

I turned to watch everyone load up the bed of the track.  They stacked body after body on top of each other.  Later, Mace told me that one of them felt rather light, and it made him so sad to think there was a child in the bag.

Once the bed was full, the men climbed around the edges and we drove to town.  We drove straight to the burial site, and the truck drove over the curb and onto the grass yard, stopping right where massive holes had be dug.  The men hopped off the truck, and one-by-one, handed the fallen victims to each other to lay next to the mass grave.  Each body in the bag was surveyed one last time to be identified by survivors.  Body fluids would ooze from the bag as they were each unzipped.  Then, they were zipped back up and laid into the grave.

Once all were buried, we returned to the City Municipal, absolutely burdened with what we had just seen, and equally exhausted, hungry, and fatigued from our labors.  By now the sun was near completely set, while the crew spoke with the Mayor about our day's work and what we could do to assist tomorrow, Mace and I went to the back balcony of the building, and sat on the ledge, watching the last few minutes of the sunset between the ruined buildings.  The sky was a bright orange, yellow, and purple, but our spirits felt so much more burdened. Mace and I attempted to talk about what we had experienced all day, but our thoughts and feelings felt so numb, and silence felt like the best form of respect we could give.  So we just sat side-by-side and watched the sun fade completely away.

Our team returned to the church building.  It was around 8 pm.  Because of the heavy monsoon the night before, we moved our camp into the chapel with everyone else.  We set up a little burner to prepare some food, feasting on ramen, rice, and sardines again.  Given the small amount of food we had eaten that morning, this tasted exquisite.

Mace and I retreated to some of the back pews to try and process the day again.  We talked about the emotional numbness, the feeling of being removed, the blocking of real awareness of what we were doing.  We wondered if there was something wrong, because we weren't feeling any emotion about it.  Preston entered our conversation and related to the same experience.

Because my body still felt so weak and ill, Mace and Preston encouraged me to sleep.  Shortly after I had fallen asleep, Mom Beth called us all over for what they called "a stress debriefing."  A meeting where we were to express our thoughts and feelings about the day, in efforts to release any deep disturbances within us.

Mace went first and expressed his numbness but that he was so impressed with the unity and leadership of the group.  He spoke of the instant brotherhood and the divinely arranged opportunities for us to meet.  Then the Filipino men spoke, and they were largely affected by what happened, many exposing tears as they talked about their heartache carrying their people from the wreckage.  One sad that as he attempted to unearth one of the bodies, he was paralyzed with pain and horror and could hardly move.  Then when he saw Mace and Preston continuing to work so hard, he was filled with respect at their dedication and unwavering effort.  He said he saw two Americans who had traveled so far from home to help people that weren't even there own.  And that gave him strength to continue on.

When my turn came, I expressed sentiments similar to Mace.  Right after, Mom Beth and Archie both chimed in to say that out of all the times they've done medical relief missions, they've never had someone in the role of child caretaker, as I am, and that it has made such a difference in their ability to work and get things done, and they've also seen such a difference in the lightened attitudes of the people as they work.

It made me feel really good, like my meager contributions were making a difference. 

After our debriefing, we all separated to go to bed.  Mace, Preston, and I returned to the pews in the back of the room and talked for awhile before dozing off.  We could not stop saying how divinely-guided this whole mission was.  What a miracle that we were here!

Hands willing to work will always be directed by God.

Upward and onward,

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