Never Abandon Ship
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Detour" episode. Today we're exploring what happens to people when they're forced to make a very sharp turn. For our next story we're heading out to the Philippines for one man's epic battle against the forces of nature.
AURORA ALMENDRAL, BYLINE: Captain Randy Lucero was standing on the deck of his cargo ship, the Eva Jocelyn, when he got news that a storm was coming towards the Philippines. He moved the big 150-foot steel vessel into a cove and he gave the order for his crew to get ready. Then the word came in over the radio - this storm was different.
CAPTAIN RANDY LUCERO: (Through translator) When Typhoon Yolanda came, we were anchored over there. By 5 a.m., the winds were very, very strong. We steered into the waves, but the waves were just too strong for us.
ALMENDRAL: Yolanda turned out to be a massive category 5 super-typhoon. The wind speeds were so fast they broke the measuring equipment. Captain Lucero and his crew were trying to stay afloat in the strongest storm ever to make landfall in the history of the world.
LUCERO: (Through translator) After one hour we really could not control the ship anymore. The sea was so strong and we had zero visibility. We could not see anything. You could only see as far as the guy standing beside you. We had no idea what was going on. I was very scared. All of our life jackets went flying off. We were crawling around the deck trying to find these plastic gallon jugs so we could grab onto them and use them to float. The wind was so strong that it could blow us right off the deck. This is it, there was nothing more we could do. We thought, if God is going to take us now, he's going to take us, that is it.
ALMENDRAL: He and his crew huddled together in the pilot room of the ship as the storm tossed the boat around. Finally he looked up. He saw the sky started to clear. The wind slowed down and the sea calmed. They could stand up again. Captain Lucero and his crew survived and the ship didn't sink, but they had no idea where they were. They thought they were drifting out into the Pacific.
LUCERO: (Through translator) We had no idea the sea had swelled - a storm surge, they called it - so we are floating there thinking we are still in the ocean.
ALMENDRAL: When the massive typhoon crashed onto land, it created a wall of water 17 feet high. It was like a tsunami picked up the Eva Jocelyn.
LUCERO: (Through translator) And suddenly, we saw there was a mountain. That mountain there, we were shocked. Where the hell are we?
ALMENDRAL: The mountain was just a few meters away and when Captain Lucero and his crew tried to get their bearings the water suddenly receded from beneath them.
LUCERO: (Through translator) We looked outside and we were on land.
ALMENDRAL: The Eva Jocelyn, a massive shipping vessel, was now breached on land in the middle of a crowded slum. Whatever sense of relief the captain felt from living through the storm quickly dissipated. The boat had crushed everything in its path during the storm. The slum, called Anibong, was in ruins thanks in part to the Eva Jocelyn. The ship was now stuck 15 feet from a mountainside and 300 feet from the shore, wedged up in the middle of this town. It was the only thing left standing. From the deck, Captain Lucero could see nothing but destruction. Every home was flattened, the ruins covered in black mud. Palm trees and lamp posts were snapped in half and the mountainside was stripped bare. The bodies of the drowned were everywhere. Down below, the people who had survived this thing were bleeding, bruised and traumatized and they were looking up at this 150-foot ship perched up on the twisted tin and splintered wood of what used to be their homes.
LUCERO: (Through translator) Many of the crew said to me, they said, let's jump down. I did not let them. Who knows what could happen to them down there? Let's stay here, I told my crew. Nobody leave.
ALMENDRAL: As they looked over the railing they realized there was some people down below, along the side of the ship. They were caught there when the ocean pulled back and they stayed there not knowing what to do.
LUCERO: (Through translator) There was this one family. We did not know they had climbed onto the boat. We just saw them. Suddenly we just saw them hiding at the side of the boat so we went to go rescue them. Then we looked over the railing and there were even more people down there - the side of the ship so we dropped down the pilot ladder so they could climb up. Yes, they were crying and some of them were still scared. One guy was trembling, the one that had a big gash here. I gave them some food once the storm calmed down.
ALMENDRAL: The way he saw it, he was the captain and the people that were now on his ship needed him.
LUCERO: (Through translator) I had a little bit of food left over. We boiled a chicken. I had everything cooked just so they would all have something to eat. We even found a pig and carried it up to the ship. They said the owner was already gone, taken by Yolanda.
ALMENDRAL: He pulled 15 people onto the ship. There were countless others wandering around in the ruins. The people of Anibong were completely cut off from the rest of the country. There was no electricity, no cell phone service, no food, no water and in the hours after the storm, they relied on each other to survive but soon what began as a feeling of camaraderie turned into desperation.
LUCERO: (Through translator) It was starting to get dangerous because there was no food. There was no food at all then we started to hear things. The people down there, they were saying that we, well, basically they were cursing at us, probably because they were so hungry.
ALMENDRAL: There was so much destruction that the government couldn't get to Anibong with help. The people felt abandoned. They were hungry and they were also thirsty, sipping water out of dirty pools just to get a drink. Their wounds were swelling up, getting infected. There was no one to collect the dead. Their neighbors, the people they loved, were rotting, their corpses turning black and bloated. The entire city smelled of death.
It went on like this day after day. Amidst this hellscape, that 3,000-ton ship just sat there unmoving. It became a symbol for Yolanda. Life was hell and the survivors of the storm needed to be angry at something so they got angry at the ship.
LUCERO: (Through translator) I do not know. We are not the same people as them. Who knows what they see when they look at us? They were probably thinking there's the captain, he is the one that brought that ship here. I was scared.
ALMENDRAL: Captain Lucero was waiting to hear from the owner of the ship about what to do.
LUCERO: (Through translator) I told him, sir it's getting dangerous for us here. People are saying they're going to blow up the ship.
ALMENDRAL: After a month, the roads had been cleared and food and fuel started trickling back, but everyday life in Anibong was still really hard. Nearly all of Captain Lucero's crew left. They couldn't take it anymore, but the captain, he decided to stay. He felt it was his duty.
Finally the owner told him that they needed to swivel this giant cargo ship around and inch it back towards the ocean. But there's one major problem - the Eva Jocelyn is now surrounded by dozens of homes. Three months have passed since the storm and the people of Anibong had started to rebuild. One woman set up a little shop in the shade of the boat selling stewed fish and hot dogs, just a couple of feet from the propeller. Men are hammering together the wooden frames of houses steps away from the ship. The butcher cobbled together a little pen and now his pig is wallowing in the mud underneath the Eva Jocelyn. Captain Lucero knows that getting the ship back to sea means more destruction. What's even worse is that he's the one that has to go door-to-door to break the news.
LUCERO: (Through translator) I went to each of the houses, the ones that were about to be run over, to tell them that it is nearly time for their house to be destroyed. That was the big problem. There were some people, the storm was still so fresh in their minds, they really had not accepted the idea that it was not our fault. Some of them refused. They said they did not want their homes destroyed. I hated hearing that. I really did not want to hear it. I do not feel like it is my fault. If it was not for the storm, if the sea had not swelled, we would never have ended up here.
ALMENDRAL: Hostility towards the captain's ship grows thick. He begins to worry that someone might take revenge on him. Sometimes he's too scared to climb off the ship even for a moment.
LUCERO: (Through translator) We have to walk by so many houses before we get down there next to the sea. That is where the toilet is. It is kind of far away, and you end up passing a lot of houses and anyone can just block your way. That's what we were thinking. They can just stop you so sometimes I just hold it, I just end up holding it.
ALMENDRAL: So Captain Lucero starts lying to the people, promising them they're going to get reimbursed. Meanwhile he's pleading with his boss to make good on the false promise, but after weeks of wrangling, all he manages to do is get the owner to give each family whose home is going to be destroyed 5,000 pesos which is about 110 U.S. dollars. It's a tenth of what they think they deserve so now the people are really angry, and they're angry at Captain Lucero. He goes out of his way to try to appease the people of the slum.
LUCERO: (Through translator) Maybe 50 houses - more than 50 houses, we supplied them with electricity because we have a big generator here. We dropped down a wire and the residents stopped the electricity - lots of people jump onto it so that was a help for them because now there's light. We gave it to them like it was nothing so they would not be so upset.
ALMENDRAL: As months pass, Captain Lucero is exhausted by all the negotiating he's doing. He pleads for the ship owner to have sympathy for the people of Anibong. He feels so guilty and responsible for those living around the ship, at one point he personally buys a family coconut lumber and corrugated tin roofing. He even builds a bathroom for the neighborhood to share, a little wooden outhouse on the shore.
LUCERO: (Through translator) They would not say it, but they were angry. The people were mad at me. I felt bad for them with everything that has happened and they do not even have houses to move to.
ALMENDRAL: For five months Captain Lucero tries to make good for the people of Anibong. Then one day, he gets a phone call from his boss. He tells Captain Lucero out of nowhere that he's been reassigned to another ship. If he wants to keep getting a salary, he'll have to take this job on a ship that's actually sailing.
LUCERO: (Through translator) I just left the next day. No one knew I was leaving. I did not say goodbye.
ALMENDRAL: In the Philippines you can't just walk out. It takes hours just to say goodbye and no one moves out of a place without a party, but Captain Lucero does. He leaves a little cash so the contractors can buy a couple of bottles of gin, but he's too ashamed to stay and drink with them. Instead he looks one more time over the prow of the ship, at the destruction of the most powerful storm to ever make landfall. He's a lone ship captain in a sea of wreckage so he packs up his belongings and climbs down the side of the boat.
LUCERO: (Through translator) I just left. I climbed down to the street and from the street, I went straight out. I just walked away.
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Randy Lucero for sharing his amazing story. These days, Randy is no longer the captain of a ship but he is still sailing. As far as the ship, the villagers decided to chop it up and sell it for scrap metal.
That story was produced by Aurora Almendral. To read more of Aurora's work check out our website, snapjudgment.org. We'll have a link. It was also produced by our own Nancy Lopez, with sound design by Renzo Gorria.
You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Detour" episode and when we return, we've got the strangest runaway story you are ever going to hear - in just a moment, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Detour" episode continues. Stay tuned.
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