Grandmother and rice farmer Rosita Agustin, 78, spent 90 minutes dangling from the wooden beam of a door frame in her two-bedroom house in Santo Nino, Leyte. Her roof was ripped off and flood water thundered through her village, pummelling everything in its path and killing many of her friends.
And while she was fighting for her life, her daughter Ines Olivier was thousands of miles away on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, paralysed by the fear her mother may be dead.
Rosita said: “In front of my house towards the beach, I could see a giant wave. That’s when I felt a terrible dread. I tried to run to the front door – it was a reflex to want to get out. But in the few seconds it took me to walk, I knew it was already too late.
“I grabbed my big wooden crucifix and climbed on my bed as the water rushed in. I was amazed at how quickly it rose – I could hardly breathe. I grabbed on to my door frame and stayed there for about an hour and a half.”
“When I opened my eyes, I could see the bodies of my neighbours and my friends in the water. Nine bodies of my neighbours, just floating. They drowned.”
As the water subsided in Leyte, Ines was waking to the news in New Caledonia that Typhoon Haiyan had destroyed almost everything in its path and claimed thousands of lives. “I tried to call my mum but I couldn’t get through. I felt sick,” she said. “I was sobbing – I felt totally powerless.”
Mother-of-three Ines contacted the Red Cross asking if Rosita could be traced. And four days later, a team of volunteers visited Santo Nino and clambered over the rubble to Rosita’s neighbourhood.
Rosita was desperate to tell her family she was safe but had no way to communicate with anyone outside the village.
“A Red Cross volunteer came over and asked ‘Are you Rosita Agustin?’ Your daughter is looking for you’ and I hugged him and I kissed him a 1,000 times,” she said.
Less than a week after the storm, Ines arrived in the Philippines and headed straight for the family home. “When I saw her, it was the happiest day of my life. To think she hung on to the door frame for so long is incredible. She’s a very strong woman.”
Ines, a French Red Cross volunteer at home, stayed on in Tacloban to offer her skills as a logistician and help the relief effort.
Philippine Red Cross teams nationwide have been striving to trace more than 20,000 people separated by the storm and are continuing to reunite families in the aftermath of the disaster.