Thursday, November 7th – 27 hours before Super Typhoon Haiyan:
I’ve been scared before. I’ve watched a horror movie and then tip-toed around the night-time house, jumping at every groaning floorboard and sinister silhouette; I’ve heard the stomach-churning, metallic crunch of my parents’ car being side-swiped. But even as the fine hairs on my neck stood alert and cautionary adrenaline patrolled through my body, I knew that there was no real danger. I knew there wasn’t really a sneaky killer hiding behind my duck-print shower curtain, and I knew the real terror of that car accident would be facing my parents afterwards. Super Typhoon Haiyan was the first time – the first time I wondered if today was the day I was going to die.
At 9am, the cue at the Boracay boat dock was civil and single file. With 100’s of people in line, and a slow 45-person boat chugging back and forth from the mainland every 30 minutes, we were ready for a long wait. The sizzling hot sun and brilliant blue sky still showed no signs of the impending storm. We waited, we even shrugged it off when people crept along the edges of the line and slipped in ahead of us. It didn’t matter that much. The line marched forward slowly, as the boat disappeared and reappeared on the horizon, and 45 new people were allowed onto the pier each time. Two hours slipped away, and then three, then four.
As morning drifted into afternoon, the rumours started: The boats were going to stop soon. Some of us were going to be stranded here when the storm hit. Some people were boarding a set of boats down on the beach. Who were those people and those boats? Why were they getting away before us?
There were no answers, only confusion. The whispers intensified and the anxiety grew, until one man burst out of the commotion. He elevated himself on a chunk of concrete and yelled across to the dock staff standing on the pier, “Are we all going to get across? Are there enough boats for all of us? You can’t just leave us here!” He was yelling, and then he was leaping across the dock and climbing onto the fence that enclosed the pier. He slipped through the widely-spaced fence bars, and tried to run for the approaching boat. The crowd pressed closer to watch the spectacle. Sweaty, exhausted bodies filled the gaps around me, and I never saw what happened to the leaping man.
The organized line had transformed into a tightly-packed blob of increasingly panicked people – a blob that wriggled and expanded like an anxiously breathing lung. The crowd was roaring now, and people were squeezing together so forcefully that I no longer had control over my arms and legs. My whole body was locked in place by other people, and I could only move when the crowd swept me forward. The boats continued to sail back and forth from the mainland, and the tension swelled as we were left behind each time. I braced for the crescendo.
Then it came. The mob tore through the barricade and people streamed onto the pier as if a dam had been suddenly released. I felt the surge of 100’s of frightened people behind me, and I was pulled into the frenzy on the pier, away from Brent. My legs were freed for the first time in over six hours as people pushed past me, screaming. I looked back and saw Brent climbing off the dock and jumping across the water to reach me. He landed hard on the concrete pier, and without pausing, we broke into a sprint. We ran down the pier, the pleas from the dock staff fading behind us, my legs wobbly with adrenaline and dehydration.
The mob bottle-necked at a gap in the fence, the access point to the boat. The boat crew struggled to maintain control as they freed individuals from the mob, pulling them onto the boat. They pulled at random – some people had been waiting for seven hours, others had just arrived and jumped into the chaos. We pushed ourselves towards those open hands ready to lift us to freedom, and I felt the tiniest flicker of relief, the faintest hope that we were going to make it. But then the wooden boarding plank was being pulled away, and we were still standing on the dock.
The mob continued to thrash as the boat glided away from the pier, anticipating the arrival of the next one. We waited, squeezed together, barely able to breathe. Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour. My body was released as people gradually let go. There were no boats on the horizon anymore, and it had been too long.
I knew the truth now, but I needed to hear it. I untangled myself from the last clinging threads of the mob to find one of the dock staff. “When is the next boat?” I phrased my question with more hope than I felt, as if I could will one more boat into existence. “No boats, ma’am” he stated flatly. I walked away from him wordlessly and locked eyes with Brent across the crowd. I shook my head. The most powerful storm in history was heading straight for us, and we were trapped on this island. That was the first time – the first time I wondered if I was going to die.