It’s been a week now since the C-130 military transport aircraft that carried 96 passengers and crew crashed in Patikul, Sulu. It killed 52 soldiers and civilians, including the 30-year-old military nurse, 1st Lt. Sheena Alexandrea “Rea” Tato.
Rea’s father, retired Col. Wilfredo Tato, who spoke to ANCX for an interview Sunday night, says the family finally had some much-needed sleep following the shock of his daughter’s passing. The Tatos are still coming to terms with what happened. “Sa awa ng Diyos, medyo natatanggap na, pero hindi pa lubusan,” the former military man offers. “Kasi minsan hindi maiiwasan, kapag nakikita ko ang larawan nya, hindi ko maiwasang ilabas ang sakit na nararamdaman ko.”
The flight nurse was supposed to be staying in Villamor Airbase after being assigned to Jolo and Davao, but then she was requested to fill in for a colleague whose child got sick. Rea welcomed the Jolo assignment, as it would mean she would have time to review for the CGFNS (Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools). The schedule in Jolo was less busy.
Rea would usually update her father about her situation wherever in the Philippines she may be. On July 3, a day before the crash, father and daughter were on the phone. She messaged her father in the morning that they were already onboard the C-130 going to Jolo. She texted again after a while to say the flight was postponed for the following day due to an engine problem. About 11AM, Rea told her Papa she was already inside the quarters and having lunch. Later, another message informed Sir Wilfredo that she was going to her room to fix her things and get some rest.
Having been assigned to Jolo for six years during his stint as a soldier, Sir Wilfredo was familiar with the runway in Patikul, Sulu. He always thought its runway is too small for a C-130. He was supposed to advise his daughter to instead take a commercial flight to Jolo, but saved the message for an evening call because he knew Rea was catching up on some rest.
At around 6PM, Sir Wilfredo decided to call Rea. It would be their last conversation. It included her niece Lady Alexandrea. The mag-tita were having so much fun chatting that soon Sir Wilfredo eventually fell asleep. It was only in the following morning when he realized he forgot to tell Rea of his suggestion about taking a commercial flight.
Sir Wilfredo still got a text message from Rea that morning. “Pa,” it said, “on board na kami sa C-130.” Clearly, it was too late to even bring up his advice. What he ended up texting was, “Anak, happy trip. God bless.”
Rea sent two more text messages, informing her father they had touched down in Cagayan de Oro, and that they were already taking off from CDO going to Patikul. He was expecting to get an update around 12 noon. The plane would have landed by that time. But there was no message from Rea. He decided to contact Rea’s mobile numbers; there was no reply. She might have turned her phones off, thought Sir Wilfredo, before landing. After lunch time, the Tatos received the tragic news.
The phone call
It was Rea’s boyfriend, Patrick, who received the information that the C-130 crashed in Patikul. He called the Tatos to deliver the unfortunate news.
“Ano ba yan?! Bakit kayo nag-iiyakan?” Sir Wilfredo asked when he saw his wife and Sheen’s wife sobbing. He grabbed the phone from his wife and, upon hearing the news, said in disbelief, “May official announcement na ba from the AFP? Wala yan! Wag ka muna maniwala dyan. Antayin natin ang official communication.” He meant to calm down his wife.
Sir Wilfredo called his brother-in-law, a retired colonel, who told the Tatos he will confirm the news from an asset in Jolo. The brother-in-law had more information when he called: the body of Rea has been recovered and was already at the ICU of Camp Bautista Hospital in Jolo. “Sabi ko kay misis,” Sir Wilfredo recalls, “Ang anak natin, nurse yan. Trained yan, ang katawan nyan ay malakas.’”
Sir Wilfredo called his driver and prepared to leave for Jolo. “Iniisip ko, I have to rescue my daughter. I need to be there para maalagaan sya, kung ano ang pangangailangan na gamot, ako ang tatakbo.” Together with his wife Ging, Sheen, and a reserved driver, Sir Wilfredo left Davao City at 3:30PM the same day. But they had not gone far when they received another phone call from Patrick confirming Rea had indeed perished.
Wilfredo hugged his sobbing wife at the back of the car. He repeated his earlier line to calm her down, “Wala pang official report from AFP.’” But he already felt a stinging pain in his chest. He knew he just lost a daughter.
The Tatos have lived a very simple life. Rea was born in Ozamis City, Misamis Occidental. The family later relocated to Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur, when Sir Wilfredo was assigned there. The Tato children practically grew up inside the military camp in Pagadian. “Doon ako nagtayo ng bahay mismo sa loob mismo ng kampo,” he tells ANCX. Both Rea and Sheen were very well-behaved, says their father.
After finishing grade school and high school in Pagadian City, Rea was planning to take up nursing at the Marawi State University. But her father’s ITR did not qualify in the required income bracket. Rea ended up enrolling at the Brokenshire College in Davao City. With her brother already studying Agribusiness Economics at UP Mindanao also in Davao, the whole family decided to relocate there.
Rea was bent on working as a nurse in the US, like one of her aunts in Washington. That was why she was reviewing for the CGFNS. But when she found out about the possible expense preparing for a nursing career in the US would incur (over half a million pesos), she decided to work for a while in order to raise the needed funds, and also to help the family. Sir Wilfredo suggested she apply first as a military nurse. He even helped train Rea so she could pass the physical fitness test.
“Ipinasok ko siyang military nurse kasi nakikita kong nasa ospital lang naman, ligtas ang aking anak,” Sir Wilfredo says. “Hindi ko na-foresee na dahil napunta sya sa Philippine Air Force, siya ay sasakay sa sasakyan na ang isang paa nila ay nasa hukay.”
Rea was No. 2 in her class, says her father. “Matalino at matiyaga siyang mag-aral. Bata pa, responsible na, alam na niya ang gagawin niya. Bihira siyang humingi ng tulong.” She was also cheerful and understanding.
Through her earnings as a military nurse, she was able help provide for the needs of the family, and help pay for the amortization of the family home. “Tinulungan niya din po ang pinsan at ibang kamag anak ko na makapag-aral,” Sheen offers. “Nagpapadala po sya ng tulong sa mga tita ko at pinsan. Kaya po kahit malaki ang sahod ng isang flight nurse, ay di niya po nagagawa ang gusto niyang bakasyon at nagtitipid po sya.”
The reason Rea wanted to go to the US was because she wanted to raise their family’s quality of life. Her ultimate goal was to pay the Tatos’ housing amortization in full and be able to have some extra for renovation.
Sir Wilfredo recalls a conversation he had with Rea’s boyfriend, Patrick. “Alam mo ba Sir, nung umalis na kami dyan sa bahay noong June 28, umiyak si Rea sa eroplano,” says Sir Wilfredo, echoing Patrick’s words. “Kailan pa daw kaya namin maipapagawa ang second floor ng aming bahay?” Rea has been worried about her parents who, despite their age, are still working to pay off their loans.
“Itong PAGIBIG [loan] na ito, gusto kong matapos agad, pero ako ang magbabayad. Ayokong mamatay ako na may utang kami, kaya ako’y nagsisikap,” Wilfredo tells ANCX as tears start to fall on his cheeks. “Pero iba ang nangyari. Dahil nakapangalan kay Rea ang bahay, sa pagkamatay nya, ibig sabihin, fully paid na yung 80% niya. Hindi ko iniisip na ganoon ang mangyayari. Hindi ko hinihingi na ang kapalit ay kamatayan niya. Hindi ko masabing, Anak, salamat.”
When Rea’s remains were brought to their home in Davao City, Sir Wilfredo made sure it would be in a special spot. He’s also secured a memorial lot for Rea and the rest of the family. “Gusto ko ang bibilhin kong libingan nya, tatlo na,” says Sir Wilfredo. It is where he and his wife would also like to be buried when the time comes. “Para hindi kami magkakahiwalay.”