The trip to Kalayaan
- Aimee Abaricia () - July 16, 2005 - 12:00am
Engineer Roger Flores looked different when he came back from his latest assignment. So did the rest of his team at Smart Communications Inc., Vladimir Pascual, Roilan Luce, Lawrence Villalobos and Guds Cabrera.

They were all sunburned, a few pounds lighter, and badly in need of a haircut and shave – but thankful for what may well be a new lease on life.

They had just set up a cell site on the islet of Pag-asa, the lone barangay in the country’s remotest municipality, the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan, which is part of the Spratlys chain.

Their mission was simple – to install a base transceiver station on Pag-asa and link it via VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) to the Smart switch in Metro Manila.

But considering the remoteness of the site – some 535 kilometers from Puerto Princesa City – and the absence of commercial trips, it would be difficult to transport equipment and the maintenance station of the cell site.

The plan was to put up a connect site base station, which is more lightweight and, therefore, easier to install than the traditional base station but provides the same coverage. The connect site, geared for outdoors, would be mounted on an existing tower. Once activated, cell site coverage would extend as far as 20 kilometers.

The engineering team’s challenge began even before they reached Pag-asa.

The boat trip from the Palawan mainland, normally lasting only two days, stretched to a nerve-wracking seven days. The area, tagged "dangerous ground" because of numerous shallow reefs or shoals, as well as the proximity of foreign-occupied islands, was made worse by typhoon "Dante," which lingered as it made its way out of the country.

Flores, head of Smart operations in South Luzon, and his four teammates, were accompanied by two men from the company contracted to install the VSAT equipment, Kalayaan councilor Joel Besa, municipal engineer Allan Erinos and some Pag-asa residents, boarded the motorboat MLHj Aiza in Rio Tuba, Palawan, on June 4. They arrived on Pag-asa on June 10.

"We thought we’d never make it. Akala namin katapusan na namin," said Flores, slightly shaken at the recollection.

Early on their second day at sea, it suddenly grew dark. Strong winds and rain buffeted the boat and waves "as big as houses" made them lose sight of the horizon from time to time, he said.

For almost two hours, everyone on board was silent, holding on to anything fixed in an effort to keep steady. Cabrera and Villalobos became nauseous and lay down.

Of the five Smart men, only Pascual knew how to swim, but even he was afraid. "There was nowhere to go, everywhere we looked, we saw only water," he said.

But he firmly believed that God would not forsake them because what they were doing was for the benefit of other people.

So when the water pump broke down and could no longer siphon off water that had seeped into the boat – and the boat owner, in panic, ordered heavy items to be thrown overboard – Pascual started praying "Glory be to the Father" nonstop.

So did Flores. "Nakulitan yata si Lord sa amin, paulit-ulit kaming nagdasal," he said. "Kung mahina ang loob mo, masisiraan ka ng bait."

Villalobos thought about his three-week-old baby, as he began to rue his decision to join the team. He had been called in at the last minute to replace a colleague who had to sort out a domestic matter.

There were only two life vests. Cabrera was prepared to go overboard and already had the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the satellite phone wrapped in plastic.

The men had been using the GPS and a detailed map of the Spratlys to chart their course and the satellite phone to report periodically their coordinates and situation to the headquarters .

The others started eyeing the water gallons, picking out the one they would hang on to should the worst happen and they find themselves in the water. The containers had even been ID’d, Pascual joked.

One of the contractors had the bizarre idea of recording the uncertain moments with his waterproof camera, thinking the photos would outlive them should the boat sink.

The mood lightened only when the GPS indicated that they were near the First Thomas Shoal, which appeared as simply two or three rock protrusions in the water. There, they decided to wait out the bad weather – for two nights.

And there, for the first time, Flores and Pascual considered turning back.

The thought was short-lived, however. On the fourth day, the sun came out and the sea calmed down.

They set off for Ayungin, also known as the Second Thomas Shoal, where they knew they would find the BRP Sierra Madre, the Navy ship that had run aground in the reef in 1999 and has since served as quarters for Navy personnel assigned to secure the area.

Some three hours into that leg of the journey, however, the weather took another turn for the worse, and Flores and company found themselves once again at the mercy of the waves and the heavy rains.

At that point, Villalobos decided to sit up. Lean and lanky, he had nearly been thrown overboard days before when big waves tipped the boat, causing the plywood plank he had been laying on to slide toward the side. If not for one of the contractors, who caught him by the arm, he would have slid straight into the turbulent waters.

When they reached the BRP Sierra Madre, they learned that they had almost been fired upon. Their boat carried no flag, and for a moment they must have been mistaken for illegal fishers or worse, alien or hostile forces.

The Navy men, who were probably just as eager as they for company, gave the Smart team a warm welcome. For the first time in four days, Flores and company took a bath, sat down to a hot meal, complete with utensils, slept in individual beds that did not rock or slide and even whiled away the time with their hosts singing to a videoke machine.

They also contacted their families on their satellite phone. None of them said anything about the danger that stalked them.

After two days on the naval ship, they left for Lawak Island, where they spent the night before proceeding on the last leg of their journey to Pag-asa.

News of their arrival had already been radioed ahead so almost the entire population gathered at the docking area on June 10 to greet them and help unload the equipment.

Pag-asa is home to a deployment of the Philippine Air Force Detachment 570, the 355th Aviation and Engineering Wing, the Philippine Navy, and civilians brought to the island in 2002 under a resettlement program started by Mayor Rosendo Mantes.

There are 356 registered residents although only about a hundred stay on the island at any given time. The rest are in Puerto Princesa pursuing studies or getting medical attention or attending to matters that can be done only in mainland Palawan.

With so many offering to help, the Smart team was about to activate the cell site in no time at all.

On June 11, at around 5:15 p.m., everyone on the island cheered when their cell phones came to life. There was much reason to celebrate. It was the 27th anniversary of the annexation of the Kalayaan Island Group to Palawan by virtue of Presidential Decree 1596 and the eve of Araw ng Kalayaan (Independence Day).

Flores and Pascual were soon kept busy giving load over the air to those with cellphones. The island folk were just so engrossed texting and/or calling that no one went home to prepare supper, Flores quipped.

Pascual saw a soldier making a call, with tears streaming down his cheeks. He learned later that the soldier left his wife and their three-day-old firstborn five months ago and had no way of calling home till then.

"That is the immeasurable return on investment on installing a cell site in the middle of nowhere," he said.

It was not exactly an unusual sight to Smart engineers. But having come that close to their end, it made them see their work in a fresh light.

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