Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Filipino ferry disaster survivor tells ordeals, prayer and determination to live saved her from death

Ferry tragedy survivor Lita Casumlum is hoisted to a Philippine Air Force chopper after she was rescued Monday, September 7, 2009 by the 505th Search and Rescue Squadron based at the headquarters of the 3rd Air Division in Zamboanga City. (Photo courtesy of 3rd Air Division / 505th Search and Rescue Squadron).

Superferry 9 survivor Lita Casumlum at a military hospital in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, Tuesday, September 8, 2009. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / September 8, 2009) – A Filipino woman who was rescued at sea 30 hours after her ferry sank off the southern province of Zamboanga del Norte said prayer and determination to live has saved her from death.

Lita Casumlum, 39, was plucked out at sea off Sirawai town on Monday after being drifted for more than a day. Her husband, Pepito, 40, their son Christopher, 7, and nephew, Sweden, 24, were rescued Sunday along with more than 900 passengers of the ill-fated Superferry 9.

The ferry was heading to Iloilo province in central Philippine from General Santos City when it listed on its right side and eventually sank. At least 9 passengers had perished and dozens more are still missing.

Lying on bed at a military hospital in Zamboanga City, Casumlum said she prayed the whole time, asking for God to save her from death. She also prayed for her son and husband and nephew after they were separated.

“I never thought I would be rescued. I just prayed and prayed hard that some ships or fishing boats or the navy will rescue me, but there was none. No ships until I saw the helicopter.”

“I don’t know what to do. All I remember was that we were separated when we jumped out to the water. The current was strong and I kept calling my husband’s name, my son, but I was drifting away and away and far.”

“I was so tired. The sea was so cold, everything is cold at night and it was so hot during the day. I was hungry and drank sea water only. I thought I would never see my son and husband and nephew again. I cannot explain my feelings. I am so happy to be alive,” she said.

Casulum said they want to go back home, but her condition is preventing her from traveling.

“My whole body is in pain. We want to go back home in Iloilo (province), but I feel so week. Thank God and we are all alive,” she said.

The woman could hardly speak. Her throat was painful. Military medical staff at the Philippine Air Force’s 3rd Air Division hospital said the Casulum has sore throat because of the sea water she drank while drifting at the cold sea for more than a day until she was found by the 505th Search and Rescue Squadron.

Casulum’s husband said they would never forget the tragedy.

“It was really scary. Thank God that Lita is alive, our son and nephew are alive. I cannot forget this happened to us. It is a miracle that we all survived. I pity my wife. She is in pain – look at her, her face is swollen, her arms are swollen. She is really in pain, but we are also happy because we are all here together.”

“I don’t know what really happened. There was a loud noise like something that hit below from where we were staying (economy section). We don’t know if it were cargoes hitting each other. Others say there was an explosion. And then the lights went out and there was no electricity and all turned on again and then it was all gone,” he said.

“We can hear people screaming and crying and somebody was shouting to abandon our ship,” he added.

Pepito also showed the life vest her wife had used, his eyes teary from the memory of the tragedy and the news that 9 people had perished from the September 6 sinking of the Superferry 9.

Air Force Major Antonio Mandaue, who was part of the rescue operations, said it took them more than an hour to locate Casulum.

“It was really a dramatic rescue operation. We deployed two Bell helicopters from the Philippines Air Force 505th Search and Rescue Squadron to search for ferry survivors off Sirawai. We knew the current was really strong, the waves are huge but we continued until we spotted Lita Casumlum at sea.”

“She was like a dot in the vast blue ocean. Her orange life jacket was the only thing that told rescuers that she was from that boat. It was sheer determination to save lives that rescuers were thinking of at that moment. We are losing time by the hour and we know that difficulties of all those involved in the search and rescue. Strong wind, big waves and time was running out,” he said.

He said Casulum was plucked at sea by an air force rescuer using a cable and winch until the woman was secured. “She was not moving when the chopper brought her to an army base in Sirawai for first aid. I thought she was dead – she was badly burned by the sun, her face was swollen and she looked bad – until she moved and we were all glad that she has survived for more than a day in the cold of the water and the extreme heat of the sun.”

“She was trembling and thirsty and hungry when she arrived and she could hardly speak because of sore throat. We gave her first aid and water and blanket to warm her body, but the shock of lives came when found two crabs - about 2 inches big – inside her pockets and I thought it was what saved her. We don’t even know how the crabs got inside her pockets,” Mandaue said.

He said the woman was lucky to have survived the tragedy. “The chopper found her more than an hour of searching at 500 feet. It was sheer luck that the chopper flew near her position and she was spotted. I estimated her to be about 15 nautical miles away from where the Superferry 9 sank,” he said.

Mandaue is the liaison officer of the 3rd Air Division in Zamboanga del Norte province. (Mindanao Examiner)

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