AG Saño, the man who helped bury the dead

As he walked past dead bodies and people desperate for help, he realized he was no longer a victim, but a survivor. And he had to do something.

DEATH. Passersby cover their noses to protect themselves from the smell of death. Photo by AG Saño

MANILA, Philippines – This is how his brother knew AG Saño is alive. Caught on camera, AG was in the background trying to comfort a father carrying the body of his dead daughter as he was being interviewed by the media.

At first, AG was only looking for media people to help him relay the message – that he is alive. But as he walked past dead bodies and people desperate for help, he realized he was no longer a victim, but a survivor. And he had to do something.

“What can I do? I survived, I was still standing straight,” he told Rappler

AG was visiting a friend in Tacloban when Typhoon Yolanda hit the city and other areas in the Visayas on November 8. Eastern Visayas bore the brunt of the super typhoon which killed thousands with its strong winds and storm surges. 

‘Don’t look at the faces’

When he saw firemen collecting bodies, he went along to lend them a hand. (READ: After the rain, firemen bury corpses)

For 3 days, he picked up bodies with men from the Bureau of Fire Protection, and lined them up near the city hall. They would rest at night only to get up again at 5 in the morning and resume operations.

For 3 days, he made sure not to look at the faces of the dead.

“[It is] impossible for you not to be affected, but just like the smell, you eventually get immune to it…we don’t really notice the smell anymore.” (READ: Burial of Yolanda casualties must wait – health official)

He went on for 3 days, believing there will be an epidemic if they let the bodies rot. But on the 3rd day, he could not take it anymore. (READ: How to handle corpses during disasters)

“After 3 days, pagod ka na mentally, emotionally, physically – ‘di mo na kakayanin eh. Pwede magpahinga, tuloy, [pero] naisip namin magbreak [kami], yung mga gutom naman.”

(After 3 days, you’re already tired mentally, emotionally, physically – you can’t go on. You can rest for a while, continue, but we thought we should take a break and help the hungry instead.)

In the evening of the third day, AG helped distribute relief goods to the survivors. He went home Wednesday, November 13, and on his first night back, had a flashback of everything he witnessed.  (WATCH: Tacloban, a visual diary on the ground)

“I can still see the face of the guy we unearthed from the rubble at the Shell station, the personal waiter of the mayor,” he said. “If there’s a way to delete that memory from my head, I would.”

And when he heard a psychologist list down the symptoms of trauma, he realized he was clearly experiencing it. But he brushed it aside, realizing there’s more work to do. “There’s probably no time to think about that now since there’s so much to do for Tacloban.”

As soon as he came back to Manila, he began his own relief drive with the advantage of knowing where exactly to send the goods.

Escape plan

Before he left, there was already some semblance of authority in Tacloban City. But he described the outskirts as crazy. He heard rumors of looting, and saw it for himself one night when the looters took things from other villas at the hotel he was staying in.

“Maraming gustong [umalis], nakakatakot na kasi. [May] mga nakakatakot na kwento ng looting, breaking and entering, may mga kwento pa nga ng rape, ‘di lang verified [pero] mabilis kumalat,” he said.

(Many of them want to leave because it’s already scary. There are scary stories of looting, breaking and entering, even stories of rape but not verified. But all these spread quickly.)

The government asked volunteers to be self-contained if they want to go to the ground and help. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas listed shelter, food, fuel and vehicle as essentials, but AG added a 5th one: an escape plan.

“Otherwise, just don’t go, just stay home, help DSWD. Volunteer, give donations…Better to say expect the worst than say everything is under control when in fact, it’s not,” he warned.

Watch Rappler’s #TalkThursday interview with AG and his brother Philippine Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Saño below.


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