PALO, LEYTE - Bilfrid Militante was not quite a man yet, but he died like one.
Against his mother's wishes, the 12-year-old joined his father and the other men of the village in watching over their homes on the eve of the devastating landfall of Supertyphoon "Yolanda" here, said his mother Cristina Maceda-Militante.
The mother wanted the boy to evacuate with her to a relative's ancestral house in the village of Buri uphill. But Bilfrid, a high school sophomore, insisted that he was old enough to do what the adults did. "I'm going to stay," he told her proudly.
Most of the menfolk of Candahug village in this coastal town facing the Pacific Ocean had resolved to brave the night to protect their belongings and livestock. The women and children, on the other hand, were to head for high ground.
"They said it would be OK. They said it would just be wind, that there would be no flooding," said the 37-year-old Cristina, who makes a living by making rice cakes.
But like so many others who made light of Yolanda's power and fury as the monster hit the area on Friday, they thought wrong. And a multitude paid for the mistake with their lives.
Bilfrid was found 1 kilometer away from where their house once stood, buried in the pile of debris.
"He was a papa's boy," the mother said, visibly struggling to fight back tears.
"We had high hopes for him. He was so good in class. The teachers always appreciated him," she said in front of the newly built Palo Metropolitan Cathedral, where some 20 bodies were taken, including her son's.
Village buried in sand
Bilfrid's father Gilberto is still missing, presumed dead, as are many of Candahug's men.
A day before Yolanda's landfall, the Inquirer met Crispolo Daga, a 49-year-old tricycle driver who lived in Candahug. "We're used to storms. It's dangerous for the children, so we brought them to the evacuation centers. We men will stay behind," he had said.
The Inquirer sought Daga out on the team's second visit to the area. But there was virtually nowhere to look for him.
"It's all sand now. The entire village is buried in the sand," 55-year-old Josefa Navarra said, describing what had become of Candahug. The last big storm to strike Leyte was "Undang" in 1984. It also battered Palo, but it whipped up mostly powerful winds that blew roofs off houses.
Yolanda was nothing like any storm this town of over 60,000 people had ever seen.
Surges as tall as buildings
Storm surges as high as buildings slammed into the settlement of shanties near the shoreline. The tide swept inland, swallowing everything in its path: houses, pets and livestock, trees, people.
Entire settlements were wiped out on the coastline. The remains of neighborhoods were scattered inland, bodies crushed beneath them.
"It was like Hiroshima after the bomb, minus the fallout and the radiation," said Sandy Javier, mayor of Javier, a town south of Palo.
Seeing the widespread destruction in the tiny town named after his grandfather, Javier hastily assembled a team of workers and policemen to clear the roads of obstruction-to let relief trucks into town and deliver much-needed aid to his townspeople.
For almost two days straight, the team used two payloaders, saws and bolt-cutters to clear major obstructions on the main highway from Javier town all the way to Palo. "You are among the real heroes here," the mayor told his exhausted men.
Javier said the worst hit in Leyte, based on his observation, were the towns of Tanauan, Palo and Tolosa.
Mass grave for 500
In Tanauan, another coastal village south of Palo, he encountered reports of over 500 dead, for whom a mass grave was now being prepared.
Elsewhere he reported seeing more of the same: toppled poles and trees, flattened houses, upturned cars, corpses on the streets. "We were doing this for 36 hours, and that was all we saw," he said. "It was getting boring."
"Never in my lifetime have I seen something like this," Javier said.
At Barangay (village) Isidro, farther inland in Palo, another horror story was unfolding.
Unlike the coastal settlements, the swirling waters spawned by Yolanda were not high enough, but its powerful gusts sent rooftops flying.
Afraid of ghouls
The house of Maricel Daga, 37, a vendor, was blown away. "Only the sink remained," she said.
Her husband had raised their bed up to shield them from the debris. She clutched her year-old daughter Venice Mae tightly, while her husband was holding 3-year-old Vianney Marie, the woman said.
"Mama, may aswang (Mother, there's a ghoul)," Maricel recalled her little Vianney saying. "She was afraid of ghouls. It was her way of saying she was scared," she said.
But Vianney was also afraid of blood.
"When her father got wounded, his blood dripped onto her face, and I could see that she just closed her eyes in fright," Maricel said, wiping away tears.
When Yolanda's fury died down, she was horrified to see that it was not only her husband's blood on Vianney's. "She was bleeding, too, from a deep wound in her scalp," she said.
The little girl died that night.