By Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas
"Ma, we're trapped at CTV building. We need help, please rescue us."
The desperate plea came from Filipino nurse Rhea Mae Sumalpong, one of at least seven reportedly trapped inside the Canterbury Television (CTV) building that collapsed in Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Sumalpong, 25 and a native of Barangay Tuyan in Naga town in Cebu, central Philippines, sent a text message to her mother, Marlene Sumalpong, who is based in Australia, about 9:30am on Tuesday.
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Marlene immediately forwarded her text message to her sister, Dr. Ethel Uy, a dentist in Cebu, in an attempt to find help for her daughter.
The confirmed death toll from the 6.3-magnitude quake near the city of Christchurch rose to 75 on Wednesday (February 23), and officials said it was almost sure to climb further.
Some 300 people were listed as missing as rescuers raced to find trapped survivors and imposed a strict night-time curfew on the worst-hit areas.
Police said many foreign students could be among those unaccounted for in the CTV building, adding that they were "100 per cent certain" no one trapped in the rubble was alive.
The department of foreign affairs (DFA) said Philippine Charge d'Affaires Giovanni Palec would "prioritise" the search for the Filipinos trapped at the CTV building.
DFA spokesperson Eduardo Malaya said Palec would inform the New Zealand authorities about the reports on the Filipinos.
"We should never lose hope. If we review our recent experience in the earthquake in Haiti, we'll see people can remain alive in a collapsed building even after a number of days," he said.
He said Palec was expected to arrive in Christchurch on Thursday morning, where he would immediately look into the cases of the Filipinos.
Rhea Mae was with five Filipinos who were taking up International English Language Testing System at Kings Education Ltd. located on the third floor of the CTV building in preparation for their New Zealand nursing board exams on March 13-a requirement for their job in a hospital there.
"My niece will be getting her working visa this Friday, and she will be taking the New Zealand nursing board exam on March 13," Uy told the Philippine Daily Inquirer Wednesday.
She identified the five others as Emmanuel Anoba of Minglanilla town, John Kristoffer Chua of Lapu-Lapu City, Ezra Mae Medalle, Jessie Llyod Redoble and Jewel Francisco.
Uy said the family tried to call Rhea Mae's cell phone but she could no longer be contacted despite several attempts.
(Philippine TV network GMA 7 reported Wednesday night that another Filipino from Cavite was trapped in the rubble.)
But one nurse in Rhea Mae's group sent a text message to a house mate in New Zealand about Sumalpong's condition, she added.
The text message was forwarded to Uy. It read: "Her (Sumalpong's) legs are totally numb, she couldn't feel any pain."
Uy called the Office of the Cebu governor about 11am Wednesday to seek assistance.
The governor's office then informed the DFA in Manila as well as Philippine ambassador to New Zealand Bienvenido Tejano so operations would be conducted to rescue the trapped Filipinos, said Elizabeth Francia, executive assistant of Cebu governor Gwendolyn Garcia.
Rhea Mae is the eldest of two daughters of Mario Ruel and Marlene Sumalpong who are both based in Australia.
Mario Ruel, 45, works in a hotel, while Marlene, also 45, is a nurse. Their other daughter, 19-year-old Rizza Marie, is getting a nursing degree in Australia.
Uy said the Sumalpong couple and Rizza Marie migrated to Australia six years ago.
Rhea Mae was left behind because she was already 19 years old. Her age didn't qualify her to be with her parents unlike Rizza Marie, who was still 13 at that time-a minor.
But Uy said Rhea Mae didn't mind being left on her own.
"She is a fighter. She wants to be independent. She wants to be on her own. She wants to go to Australia by her own means," Uy recalled.
She said her niece planned to join her family in Australia after working for a year in New Zealand.
Plea for search to go on
Both Rhea Mae and Anoba used to work as nurses at South General Hospital in Naga City.
But Rhea Mae quit her job and left for New Zealand on Oct 29, 2010, to work there.
Anoba, Chua and another nurse from Cebu arrived in New Zealand on February 19.
Before leaving for New Zealand, Anoba went to the house of Dr. Uy on February 17 to get "magic sing" machine (videoke) so they could have some sort of entertainment in New Zealand because they were told that it was lonely there.
Now that they know Rhea Mae and her friends were trapped inside a collapsed building, her family has urged the government to push for continued rescue operations since they believe the Filipinos were still alive.
Uy said she went to the DFA office in Cebu City on Wednesday and asked them to rectify reports that there was no Filipino casualty in New Zealand quake.
Uy said the trapped Filipinos need the help of the government now.
"We were hurt by the statement there's no Filipino casualties. They should take back the statement so the government will help us because there are many Filipinos out there," Uy said.