S'porean students contact families, flown to Manila

Flinders students (from left) Alyssa Chee, Vanessa Chong and Eileen Heng were working with a local non-profit group in Tacloban to fight hunger and improve food security in the area.

Not a word was heard from three Singaporean students caught in the eye of the devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan for three agonisingly long days.

But on Monday, the trio visiting Tacloban on a school placement when the deadly typhoon hit the area on Friday were finally able to call their relieved families, and were flown out of the disaster area.

"The three Singaporean girls, Ms Eileen Heng, Ms Alyssa Chee and Ms Vanessa Chong, who were earlier uncontactable, have arrived safely in Manila, and were met by the staff of our Embassy," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement last night.

"We hope to reunite the girls with their families as soon as possible," it added.

The three, all 23-year-old final year nutrition and dietetics students of Flinders University in Australia, arrived in Manila at about 7pm on Monday and were met by Singapore's Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr V.P. Hirubalan.

In a message sent through her boyfriend, Mr Jeremy Liang, Ms Chee said all three are due to return to Singapore today. "We can't wait to be home," she added.

They had travelled to Tacloban on Oct 20 for a month-long school placement project to work with a local non-profit group, Volunteer for the Visayans, tailoring projects to combat hunger and improve food security in the area.

They were the only Singaporeans in the international programme, and lived with local host families around Bliss, Tacloban.

They had been scheduled to fly back to Singapore on Nov 22.

As the super storm approached, Ms Chong telephoned her mother. The phone call lasted about five minutes before the line was cut off.

Ms Chee was still texting her boyfriend, but the messages trailed off about 6.30am.

"When the typhoon struck it seemed like they were all together in one of the houses of the locals," recalled Mr Liang. "She told me it was coming, I asked 'so how?' She said 'just run if no choice because there is nowhere else to go'. There was no mention of evacuation centres. That was the last contact we had."

It was three days before anyone heard directly from the trio, who finally managed to call their families on Monday afternoon.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Ms Chong's younger sister Amelia said she had a brief phone conversation with her sibling, who "sounded very well".

Ms Chong had to rush off to buy toiletries and essentials in Manila as they had not had a shower or brushed their teeth in days.

"She was crying tears of joy on the phone. She said 'I love you very much and oh my God, Amelia, what we've been through... I am safe, I am safe,'" added the younger Ms Chong, 22.

"It's been a long three days. I just can't wait to see her when she's back and give her a really big hug. She's a resilient young lady."

hpeishan@sph.com.sg

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