MANILA (UPDATE) - It was 1985 and an expiring contract forced First Mate Alberto "Vito" Salazar, who was in Houston, Texas, to come back to the Philippines, leaving behind Italian-American Patricia DaRonco, their 5-month-old baby Christina and a promise.
The promise was that Vito would come back to Houston as soon as possible for them to be together. But things did not go his way and it took him a year to fulfill that promise.
"I met her mom in Houston, Texas. When Christina was 5 months old, I had to leave for the Philippines because my contract was expiring, promising her mom that I'm coming back," he said.
Patricia was only 21 when she met the Filipino seafarer who was around 15 years her senior.
Christina Daronco shared on Facebook a photo of her mother Patricia Daronco, a 3rd generation Italian-American.
Vito admitted that when he left behind Patricia in 1985, he was already in a live-in relationship with someone in the Philippines.
"Meron akong naghihintay na ka-live-in sa Pilipinas noong araw. Noong mabuntis ko 'yung nanay ni Christina, nalaman ng [live-in partner ko]… Humihingi siya ng hiwalay. So nangako ako sa nanay ni Christina na babalik ako kasi alam kong pagbalik ko sa Pilipinas, hihiwalayan ako," he shared.
Vito returned to Houston in 1986, hoping to see Patricia and Christina again.
However, they were nowhere to be found. All he had was a photo of a one-year-old Christina sent by her mom.
"After I went to the Philippines, it took me a year before I could come back to Houston again and they were nowhere to be found. Her mom sent me a picture of Christina when she was one... That was the last time my information from her materialized."
There was no Internet, no mobile phone, no Facebook in the 80's and Vito did not know how to find them.
All he had was hope.
"From that day on until 2010, I still went back to Houston. I spent four days there, looking for her and her mom," he said.
It became a game of hits and misses.
Vito had lived in Miami, Florida since 1997 after he ended up marrying his live-in partner. But he was still looking for Christina and her mom.
Vito said his wife understood that he wanted to see his daughter.
"I was in Miami since 1997. Even my children were looking for her on Facebook. But the problem is we used different names that's the reason we cannot find each other," he said. "Ang nanay niya, ang ginamit na apelyido ay 'yung sa napangasawa na niya. Eh ang hinahanap ko 'yung Patricia DaRonco."
"There were seven Patricia DaRoncos. Every time I'm sending them a message, they were not [replying]," he added.
Vito once got information from Filipinos in Houston about the whereabouts of his daughter.
He learned that Patricia's former employers, a couple without a child, tried to take away a young Christina.
"Iyong pinagta-trabahuhan ni Patricia, kinidnap itong si Christina, kasi mag-asawa 'yun at walang anak. Nang itakas [si Christina], buti inabot ng nanay niya," he said, adding that he also got information that the two fled to New Orleans.
He almost lost hope, thinking Patricia and Christina were among the casualties when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005.
Vito was not getting any younger, but somehow, after years of failed attempts, he found the will to continue his search.
Meanwhile, in another part of the United States, Vito did not know that his daughter, now married to a Filipino, was also desperately looking for him.
Christina DaRonco-Cristobal with her daughter. Photo grabbed from her Facebook page
Patricia and Christina were never in New Orleans. They fled to Minnesota, where Patricia's family lived.
She told Filipinos in Houston that they went to New Orleans just so her former employers would never find her and her daughter.
Christina, who grew up without knowing what her dad looked like, knew that finding him was next to impossible since the only information they knew about him was that he is Filipino and a first mate on a ship that docked in Duluth, Minnesota in 1984.
"I don't know what he looks like but she (Patricia) described him to me as tall and very handsome," she said.
With only a few leads and perhaps armed with a stubborn belief that anything is possible, Christina still searched for her father.
Her decades-long search brought her to a Skype interview on dzMM on April 9, 2014.
Her message to her dad was this: "I wanted to find you because I would like to meet you. I'd like to know my family, like where they come from... And, if you ever want to be a part of my life, I would welcome you to my life."
It must be the fruit of decades of hard work, prayer, hope and fate—ingredients of a miracle—that Christina's message reached her long-lost dad on the same month.
Vito said a former classmate, who was aware of his decades-long search, emailed him a link to an ABS-CBNNews.com article about Christina's Skype interview over dzMM.
He only kept a photo of a one-year-old Christina but he knew she was his daughter.
"'Yung classmate ko from Canada, he notified me on Facebook about your interview on Skype and the article. Right away, I go [sic] to the link and saw my daughter there. It was the first time I saw her on Skype and right away I knew she is my daughter," he said.
Just a few days after the DZMM interview, Christina got an email from Vito, who introduced himself as her father.
Christina had many questions to ask, especially after 29 years. She said Vito "was able to answer those questions and give information that only my real father would know."
A 2013 photo of Vito Salazar. Photo grabbed from his Facebook page
"He wished that he could turn back time. But of course he couldn't do that. But he was happy we found each other and he said he wants to make up for not being in my life for the last 29 years. He wants to be part of my life," she added.
After days of exchanging emails, text messages and phone calls, Vito went to Minnesota to meet his daughter for the first time in 29 years.
The two shared their joy of finally meeting each other in a Skype interview over dzMM.
"Masayang-masaya ako, pareho kaming naghahanapan for the last 29 years," said Vito.
Christina, meanwhile, thanked everyone who helped them in their search.
"I'm very happy and I'm very thankful for the help we received—we both are. We know that without the help it would be impossible and we are happy," she said.
Vito wasn't able to meet Patricia who wasn't allowed by her husband to meet him.
"The husband — he don't want me to see Christina's mom, but her mom would want to see me. I said if there will be a problem with that, we’d rather not see her mom."
However, Christina said that her mom was just happy that she found her long-lost dad.
"My mom is really happy for me. She was surprised. She was doubtful that we would ever find him because we didn't really know any information," she said.
Vito is determined now to make up for the lost time with Christina, who is planning to visit her siblings in Florida.
"Magpapabalik-balik ako dito when my time permits. We'll always see each other. They plan to visit me in Florida with her whole family. So I have instant grandchildren from her," he said.—with reports from Aleta Nieva-Nishimori, ABS-CBNnews.com; DZMM's Aksyon Ngayon with Julius Babao and Kaye Dacer