The brave and honest men of Cuenca

When an Augusta 109E Power chopper nosedived into Mt Maculot on July 5, members of the Mt Maculot Technical Rescue Group rushed to the crash site within 15 minutes to help its seven passengers, which included members of Manila’s high society. The pilot died instantly. Coconuts Manila went to find the brave and honest men of Cuenca.

THE TOWN of Cuenca in the heart of Batangas province, two hours south of Metro Manila, is known for three things.

First, its amazing barbequed pork — after slaughtering, they singe the skin of the pig all over, giving the meat a delicate, smoky flavor.

Second, as an entry point to the beautiful but treacherous Mt. Maculot, via barangays (villages) Pinagkaisahan and Siete.

Third, for its emergency response teams. 

Among these teams, the Mt. Maculot Technical Rescue Group is probably the most comprehensively trained. The members of both teams are adept in land and water rescue operations. Being locals of the area, they can also traverse the mountain better and faster than anyone else.

Usually, it’s errant climbers that the rescue teams go after and, hopefully, bring back safe and alive.

“May mga di nakikinig (There are those who don’t listen),” says Pilar Dimaculangan, 64, a former Ministry of Human Settlements officer. She has loved the outdoors all her life and it was she, together with the local government, who formed the rescue group. 

“Nanghihigop ng buhay ang bundok. Kailangan igalang niyo ang bundok. Kaya minsan may mga di magandang intensyon, nawawala (The mountain takes lives. People have to learn to respect it. That’s why sometimes, those with ill intentions just disappear),” she adds. 

 

Pilar Dimaculangan, “mother hen” of the Mt. Maculot Technical Rescue Group. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

On Sunday, July 5, 2015, however, the emergency came from the sky, in the form of a chopper that dropped ponderously into the trees, scattering fragments of its body throughout the Maculot mountainside. 

That day, heavy rain pounded the province. The weather was brought by Tropical Storm Egay, which had stayed in the country’s center for three days and, by then, was on its way to the north. 

Metro Manila itself was still gray and soaked, with schools in at least three cities calling off classes.
 
Despite the almost zero visibility — “You couldn’t see three meters ahead of you,” says Pilar — life went on for the Cuenca townsfolk.

A civic group pushed through with its paintball charity event. Devotees of the Virgin Mary found their way, albeit with much caution, up and down The Grotto —  a popular destination for the faithful, built some 30 years ago on an outcrop upon the instruction of a faith healer.

Locals still sought to ease their craving for cool, fresh coconut juice, even if the weather was already chilly and wet. So Florante Hidalgo, 32, who while in between construction jobs made a living bringing down coconuts from the mountain to sell in town, obliged his customers.

 

Florante P. Hidalgo, coconut picker and laborer, with his daughter Leticia. In the background are his son
Jefferson and wife Rina. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

That particular morning, he was with his friend Eladio Esplago, 42, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) laborer who’s had stints in Japan and Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, Gilbert Pilar, 20, also a construction worker, and Edmundo Jobli, 40, a carpenter, were helping people down from the Grotto. 

Even if the path was mostly paved with cement, the rain had made mud wash down from the mountain and everything became a slippery mess.

“Pag nabagyo, mababa ang ulap. Ang lupa ng araw na yon, lusak na lusak na, hirap na maglakad. (The clouds hang low when it rains. The ground on that day was so soft, it was a wreck. It was hard to walk),” says Edmundo.

Then — in reference to the distance between the Pinagkaisahan Barangay Hall (or Station 1) and The Grotto — he adds, “Pag sa amin po mababa, pag sa iba malayo-layo. ‘Yung iba nga pag umakyat ngayon, kinabukasan, hirap umakyat. (For us, it’s a short walk. For others, it’s a long hike. There are those who are able make the climb, but they would find it hard to do it again the very next day).”

These men, four among the newly-minted members of Mt. Maculot Technical Rescue Group, currently hold the record for the fastest climb, clocking in at 19 minutes from Pinagkaisahan Barangay Hall to The Grotto, versus the average time of 35 minutes.

 

Edmundo P. Jobli
Edmundo P. Jobli, a carpenter and one of the first responders on the scene. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

EDMUNDO and Gilbert were just about to grab a bite, when the latter glanced up and saw a helicopter hover above what Cuenca locals call Station 6, which is several meters above The Grotto. Gilbert recalls telling Edmundo, “Tingnan mo, parang ang baba ng lipad ng chopper (Take a look, that chopper seems to be flying really low).”

The chopper was making an ominous clattering sound. In less than five seconds, it nosedived into the trees.

Barangay Pagkaisahan captain Celestino Lunar had just started lunch when he heard not the crash, but the sudden silence above the steady throbbing of rain. Florante and Eladio were already rushing to Celestino’s house.

“Hanap kayo ng ibang kagawad at tanod, sunod na kayo sa taas, mauna na kami (get everyone else together and follow us, we’ll go ahead),” Celestino told Florante and Eladio. He also called the police and asked for assistance and any extra equipment they might have. They asked him how sure he was that there had been a crash. “Siguradong-sigurado po ako (I’m very, very sure),” Celestino answered. 

People from neighboring barangay San Isidro were also on their way to the site, as well as two other members of the rescue group. The chopper was upside down against the roots of a kalyos tree that grew on a 50- to 60- degree incline. Any steeper and the whole chopper would have fallen into the ravine. “Ang mga puno ang nagsilbing protektor nila (The trees served as their protector),” says Pilar in hindsight. 

The front of the chopper was turned over, its roof torn off, its rotors and tail broken into pieces and strewn all over the surrounding area. The doors were gone, as well, and the pilot’s seat had fallen out of the cockpit and onto the ground outside — with the pilot’s body still buckled in. 

 

Bgy Captain Celestino Lunar
Pinagkaisahan Barangay Captain Celestino Lunar, a volunteer for Mt. Makulot rescue teams since 2002. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

Five of the other passengers had already managed to climb out and were standing outside; some were walking around looking for their mobile phones to call for help. “Rescuers are on their way,” Celestino told the survivors. “If I were you, I’d go down; there are vehicles waiting for you down there.”

According to Celestino, it took them only 15 minutes to get to the crash site — faster than their record time of 19 minutes.

One of the passengers stayed behind and watched as Celestino tried to see what had hit the remaining passenger inside the cockpit. He was doubled over in a bad way, his legs crisscrossed against opposite shoulders. Onlookers said it might be a steel bar.

When Celestino checked closer, he saw it wasn’t a steel bar but part of a bamboo creeper known as usiw. “May ugat pong malaki dun po siguro tumama sa kanyang dibdib (A huge root seemed to have hit him hard in the chest),” he recalls.

Celestino can’t remember exactly now, but he estimates it took six to eight men to lift the Augusta 109E Power chopper — which weighs around 2000 kilograms and costs US$ 6.3-million — so he could get inside it and carefully extricate the passenger. “Hindi pwede kumporme sa hawak sa pasyente, baka may sala. Kaya lang itong kaliwa, mapuputol na (You have to handle patients very carefully, as there might be internal injuries. But his left ankle looks like it’s badly broken),” Celestino says.

Celestino thought the man would survive, as he clutched at him while he was being lowered on the spineboard. The man’s shirt was hiked up, revealing a scar from a recent operation. He even had the presence of mind to lower it back over his chest. In the rush, Celestino had forgotten to take the straps for the spineboard, so Gilbert and the others had to use their shirts to secure the patient. 

“Keep calm… Relax… Stay up… Stay up,” Celestino recalls telling the man, whose name he figured out, was Archie, on account of the woman whom he surmised was the injured man’s wife. He says, “Naimik po siya pero hindi na mainitindhihan (He was saying something but we couldn’t understand him).”

Eladio J. Esplago
Eladio J. Esplago, a laborer and sometime OFW, another newly-minted member of the rescue group. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

Archie’s wife — Ling-ling — was something else, everybody says. “Ang lakas! Malakas po ang loob yung babae! (So brave! That woman was fearless!)” She called out her husband’s name several times — in a loud voice — as she rushed down the mountain alongside the rescuers. She refused any help.

“Ilang beses po siya nadulas, di po siya nagpaakay, parang wala ho siya naramdaman (She slipped many times, but she didn’t want us to help her, it was like she didn’t feel any pain whatsoever),” says Celestino. If she hadn’t cried out when Edmundo attempted to lift her by her right side, they would have had no clue she was also injured. 

Tricycles took Archie, Ling-ling, Gilbert, and Florante to the ambulance. “Sir, okay lang po kayo? Huwag po kaying matulog (Sir, are you okay? Don’t sleep),” Florante recalls telling Archie. Then, with the self-deprecating humor Batangueños are known for, he says he turned to  Ling-ling and said: “Ma’am, kayo po makipagusap dito dahil di ako marunong mag-Inglis (Ma’am, can you please speak to him because I don’t know how to speak English).”

The others went back to unbuckle the pilot’s body from his seat and bring him down. Eladio, who admits to being afraid of corpses, laid the body on the spineboard. He says the rain wasn’t enough to wash the blood from his clothes; later he had to stand under a deep well pump to clean himself.  

 

Gilbert R. PIlar
Gilbert R. Pilar, a construction worker. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

The pilot was Felicisimo Esteban Taborlupa, Jr., 38. His passengers were billionaire hotelier and philanthropist Archimedes “Archie” King, his wife Ling Ling, businessman Christopher Chilip (head of Armstrong Enterprises Corp., importer and distributor of Dunlop tires in the Philippines) and wife Patricia, bag designer and former model Tina Maristela-Ocampo and husband, retail wiz Ricco Ocampo, and socials columnist and Tatler Philippines editor-in-chief of Anton San Diego.

The group had come from Puerto Galera, a resort town also accessible from Batangas Pier by ferry. They had been enjoying themselves on the Kings’ yacht and, according to reports from other media outlets, were planning to stay there until Archie received a call from his younger son Ian reminding him about his older son, Atticus’ birthday the following day.

“We don’t need to go back to Manila because this yacht has everything,” Archie supposedly told his guests. Nevertheless, he decided to pack up at noon and fly out. 

Archie passed away that afternoon at the Martin Marasigan Memorial Hospital in Cuenca, Batangas. The Chilip couple, Anton San Diego, and the Ocampos were shaken and sustained minor injuries, while Ling-ling suffered three broken ribs and internal injuries. 

IN HIS RICKETY 15-year-old L300, Rudy Cabanez, the Cuenca ambulance driver, brought the Ocampos to St. Luke’s in Bonifacio Global City 20 minutes ahead of the ambulances from St. Luke’s and the Red Cross.

The couple had already alighted when he noticed they had left their bag in the vehicle. “Baka wala sila sa sarili (Maybe they were still in a state of shock),” surmises Rudy. He called the attention of the St. Luke’s security guard. The guard called the Ocampos’ daughter and asked her to come and get the bag. “She was so happy,” Rudy said. According to him, the Ocampos’ daughter opened the bag in front of him and the security guard, revealing a bundle of cash. 

Back at the site on the same day, volunteers from Barangay Pinagkaisahan combed the area for other personal belongings and gathered them for Celestino, who did an inventory on all the items and turned them over to the police. 
 
Someone volunteered to watch over the chopper to make sure parts wouldn’t be salvaged by thieves. Florante even looked for a missing rotor blade. “Inakyat namin sa puno ng langka (We had to climb a jackfruit tree to retrieve it),” he says.
 
“Kapag may nawala, kami naman po ang madidisgrasya (If anything was lost, we’d lose face),” Celestino adds. “Takot din ako sa Panginoong Diyos, isusukli Niya sa inyo balang araw (I also have the fear of God in me, of His payback in the future).”

 

Mt. Maculot as seen from Bgy. Pinagkaisahan in Cuenca, Batangas. The ill-fated chopper that carried
billionaire Archimedes King and six others crashed into her mountainside on July 5, 2015, killing King and
his pilot, Felicisimo Taborlupa, Jr.  PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

FOR THESE men who were raised with fundamental Filipino values, respecting and helping people in need, and returning things to their proper owners is but natural. So why do some people find that kind of honesty surprising? Is goodness and integrity in such scarce supply these days? Or have people just become more wary, more suspicious, and therefore less optimistic about people doing good things, just because?

Perhaps it’s easier to live more honestly when you’re not surrounded by urban distractions. Not that Cuenca is a backtown barrio — far from it. The streets are modestly-sized, the houses intact whether they’re large or small, and their frontyards are well-kept. There’s a mix of more modern houses (those with elegantly-cut minimalist doors and rock gardens), the fruits of labor of locals who emigrated to the States, the Middle East or Europe, alongside more traditional homes (capiz windows, lattice eaves), but the contrast is not jarring.

On a Sunday, sounds of jeers and shouts from the basketball liga (league) compete with the pealing of churchbells. Church women in white blouses, full black skirts and shiny scapulars walk hurriedly to Mass, to buy lunch, or to the market.

Nearer the mountain, the streets grow narrower and a little more muddy, especially during rainy season. The men from the rescue team live in this area. Tricycles are parked on neat, dirt lots. People take their snacks on split bamboo benches in front of small sari-sari stores. There are more houses up the side of the mountain where the concrete road peters out. Their children play and study here, and maybe when they grow up, they’ll be climbers and rescuers like their fathers as well.

 

When it rains, the paths leading up to The Grotto and mountain become a slippery mess. PHOTO: Jose Enrique Soriano

 

ON THE DAY Coconuts Manila visits Cuenca, we are led up the first several yards of the path to the Grotto. The sky is gray and the ground is wet. In a light drizzle, the road is already slippery.

I want to go up the full trail but I don’t have the right footwear for it; all I can do is imagine Mr. King and his wife being led down by these men (around 20 all in all, counting the other councilmen, neighborhood watchmen, and volunteers from San Isidro).

I ask what they get out of this, being volunteers and all, doing it without pay. 

Celestino and Eladio give a practical answer: They live near the mountain, they’re able-bodied, there’s training available, so why not? 

Everyone agrees that the pay isn’t important. “Basta ang mahalaga, makatulong sa kapwa. Kahit walang bayad po, di po naghahanap kapalit, okay lang (The important thing is we get the chance to help. Even with no pay, it’s okay),” says Florante.

They get their extra income as tourist guides to hikers. Any big tips that come are put in the pot for rescue and emergency equipment, but small amounts for merienda are okay to keep.

The job, it appears, is its own reward. 

They sound earnest enough, and even Mt. Maculot seems to vouch for their words. She’s fickle, this mountain, and sometimes doesn’t show herself to visitors. She lets the clouds part to reveal her tip; and allows us to finish our shoot and get into a tricycle before the clouds come again and shower us with a cold and heavy rain.

“Mayaman man o mahirap, importante ang pananalita po ng tao — kung angkop o di angkop. Kung angkop, siguradong marami kang magiging kaibigan (Rich or poor, words and the way you say things is important — if you use words properly, you’ll gain many friends),” Celestino says.

He adds, “Mga kaibigan, magandang pakikisama, kalusugan. Iyan ang importante at tunay na kayamanan (Friends, good relationships, health. That’s what’s important, those are what makes a person rich).”

Those interested to donate equipment and supplies to the Mt. Maculot Technical Rescue Group may contact +63 921 5585964 or +63 915 7257075.
 

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