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HEROES

September 29, 2009

Heroes of the flood. Great souls.

For the people of Sta. Monica in Novaliches, this Quezon City judge on a Jet Ski who plucked dozens of residents from swirling flood waters on Saturday is “Superman.”

“I was so shocked by the situation when I heard that around 150 houses were already flooded,” said Judge Ralph Lee of Regional Trial Court Branch 83.

“I heard that so many families were already stranded on their rooftops because water from the Tullahan River was already overflowing,” Lee, 49, told the Inquirer.

Lee drove from his Fairview home for the stricken community 30 minutes away with his personal water craft, life vests and two rubber boats he used on weekend wakeboarding sorties and mobilized a rescue effort that saved 100 lives.

There were other super heroes, like Muelmar Magallanes, a powerful swimmer who braved rampaging floods to save more than 30 people, but ended up sacrificing his life in a last trip to rescue a baby girl who was being swept away on a styrofoam box.

Family members and people whom Magallanes saved hailed on Monday the 18-year-old construction worker a hero, as his body lay in a coffin at a makeshift evacuation center near their destroyed riverside village in Quezon City.

“I am going to be forever grateful to Muelmar. He gave his life for my baby. I will never forget his sacrifice,” said Menchie Peñalosa, the mother of the 6-month-old girl whom he carried to safety before being swept away himself.

From 4 p.m. to midnight, Judge Lee combed the neighborhood 10 feet under water for trapped residents, each time loading at least three people on his machine and taking them to a bakery on high ground at the Palmera 4 subdivision, where his rescue effort was centered.

He personally took 32 people, mostly women and children, to safety.

“It probably took me around 20 plus trips to do that,” Judge Lee said.

“In the evening, the residents were able to help me rescue more people when the rubber boats came … We had no light except a flashlight provided by a homeowner,” he added.

With his son Ram and other homeowners, the effort brought some 100 people to safer ground.

Hero in his own right

Judge Lee recalled that at one point, the current was so strong that the Jet Ski flipped over, sending him and his passengers into the water.

“Luckily, I was able to get on my feet and turn it over again. Sometimes debris and trash would jam the Jet Ski and it would stop functioning,” Lee said, adding that he had to clean it out several times.

“They applauded later. One even called me ‘Superman,’” he said. “I was so carried away by the very sad situation. I could have probably saved more if the Jet Ski’s propeller didn’t get clogged, but I’m happy that I’ve done something.”

Mayor Feliciano Belmonte Jr. called the judge “a hero in his own right.”

“He really sprang into action and got the residents moving to save their neighbors,” said the Quezon City mayor.

Trapped on rooftops

Magallanes was at home in Barangay Bagong Silangan on Saturday with his family when the heaviest rains in more than 40 years hit Metro Manila.

At first the family, long used to heavy rains, paid little attention to the storm.

But Magallanes and his father quickly decided to evacuate the family once they realized the river 800 meters away had burst its banks.

With the help of an older brother, Magallanes tied a string around his waist and attached it one-by-one to his three younger siblings, whom he took to higher ground. Then he came back for his parents.

But Magallanes, a strong swimmer, decided to go back for neighbors trapped on rooftops.

He ended up making many trips, and eventually saved more than 30 people from drowning, witnesses and survivors said.

One last rescue

Tired and shivering, Magallanes was back on higher ground with his family when he heard Peñalosa screaming as she and her baby were being swept away on the styrofoam box they were using in an attempt to cross the swift currents.

He dived back in after the mother and daughter, who were already a few meters away and bobbing precariously among the debris floating on the brown water.

“I didn’t know that the current was so strong. In an instant, I was under water. We were going to die,” Peñalosa said, her eyes welling with tears and voice choking with emotion.

“Then this man came from nowhere and grabbed us. He took us to where the other neighbors were, and then he was gone,” Peñalosa said.

She and other witnesses said an exhausted Magallanes was simply washed away amid the torrent of water.

Incredibly brave

Neighbors found his body on Sunday, along with 28 others who perished in the flooding.

Standing next to his coffin, Magallanes’ parents paid tribute to their son.

“He always had a good heart,” said his father, Samuel.

His mother, Maria Luz, wept as she described her son as incredibly brave.

“He saved so many people, but ended up not being able to save himself.”

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