This rescuer wanted to save more lives in the Tuguegarao flood—but he ended up losing his own 2
Doing coral reef assessment is part of Kelly’s duties at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

This rescuer wanted to save more lives in the Tuguegarao flood—but he ended up losing his own

“Nung unang blast, may presence of mind pa ako e. Pero nung second, nanghina na talaga ako. Lahat kami nanghina na,” says Sherwin Buguina of BFAR’s Fisheries Resource Protection Group.
RHIA GRANA | Nov 19 2020

Kelly Villarao, 34, belongs to a team called the Fisheries Resource Protection Group, under the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). They are tasked to do law enforcement against all forms of illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing (IUUF). They also investigate underwater crime scenes as well as land, water, and fishing conflicts.

But on Friday, November 13th, government agencies sought the group’s help for a rescue mission due to the sudden flooding in some areas in Cagayan Valley. They are, after all, trained in diving, SOLAS (safety of life at sea), and basic life support (BLS), so they can be called to respond in emergency situations, along with their floating devices. On that day, they were tasked to take care of the Northern part of Tuguegarao, particularly Linao and Annafunan.

Villarao, who was then deployed in Aparri, Cagayan, took off to Tuguegarao on a pump boat upon the instruction of Sherwin Buguina, the group’s officer in charge. On the way there, however, Villarao couldn’t ignore the people calling out for help on the roofs of houses, so he phoned Buguina to ask permission if he could first rescue the people calling out to him.

Sabi nya, ‘pupunta rin lang kami dyan para tumulong, bakit ko pa iiwan itong mga tao na kailangan tulungan dito?’” Buguina recalls Villarao’s appeal. The OIC explained to the rescuer that they’ve already made prior coordination with the groups in Tuguegarao and that people there are waiting. But Villarao insisted. “Sir, pagbigyan mo na ako, minsan lang ito.”

Buguina eventually relented to Villarao’s request, but instructed him to finish the operation in Aparri right away. Villarao was able to rescue 20 people, including children and pregnant women. He brought them to the nearest evacuation center.

This rescuer wanted to save more lives in the Tuguegarao flood—but he ended up losing his own 3
Kelly and Melanie's second out of the country trip in Taiwan, when they found out they were pregnant with their firstborn

Mission in Tuguegarao

Villarao and his team arrived 4pm in BFAR’s Tuguegarao HQ, where a briefing was held. Buguina asked if Villarao was tired and if he’d like to rest and have a meal first, since he just finished a rescue mission. But the rescuer was in high spirits. He said he’s fine and would want to help in the next operation.

With a new set of team members, the group sailed towards areas in Tuguegarao assigned to them. By this time, flood had already reached the second floor of people’s houses, so residents were waiting for help on top of their roofs. The BFAR team was able to rescue two families that afternoon.

When it looked like it was already getting dark, Buguina decided to abort the mission—for the team’s safety. Villarao, however, wanted to help out more people. “Tuwing may sumisigaw, sasabihin nya, ‘Sir, may nahingi ng tulong doon, puntahan natin,” recalls the OIC. “I told the team, ‘wag na muna kayong lumingon, babalikan naman natin sila,’” he says, thinking also of the safety of the two rescued families they had with them on the boat.

A few moments later, the group heard a loud explosion behind them and a spark suddenly illuminated the flooded area. By this time, their boat was quite far from the reach of houses and other structures. 

Namalayan ko, nakadapa na ako. Nakabaliktad na din ang piloto ko,” Buguina says, recalling the scenes on the boat that night. He immediately thought the blast could be electricity-related and there might be another blast coming so he settled for a bit, waiting. Soon, he steered the boat away from the electrical wires, because the water current was bringing them towards it.

Patay na ang makina, sabi ng piloto ko,” Buguina recalls. So he stepped away from the wheel, and that was when Villarao near the edge of the boat caught his eye, along with two other civilian passengers, a male and a female. “Nakita ko na parang may mga lapnos na sila sa katawanYung damit ni Kelly, medyo nasusunog pa,” he tells this writer. 

He found a post to tie the boat to, while making sure everyone’s okay. “Pero nag-focus kami kay Kelly kasi yung damit nya nasusunog pa. One of the team members, Jenna Arellano, who was also wounded, gave Kelly a CPR.” The current was dragging the boat towards the electric wire, and the only way they can save themselves from it was to swim against the current and pull the rope of the boat.

Buguina untied the boat from the post and asked one of their team members to pull towards a tree, which was about 40 meters away. Afterwards, he called their office to report the incident, giving instructions to turn off all electricity within a 50-meter radius.

After a while, he saw rescuers approaching their area, so he communicated with them via their only remaining tactical light—the other equipment on their boat had already broken down. But just as they were being rescued to safety, however, they heard another blast. “Nung una, may presence of mind pa ako e. Pero nung second blast, nanghina na talaga ako. Lahat kami nanghina na,” Buguina says, his voice shaking as if he was still on the boat. 

After several minutes, the rescuers finally reached them. Buguina had chills. “Nanlamig na ako. Ang unang iniisip ko iligtas kaming lahat, pumunta sa malayong area. Taranta kaming lahat. Walang makapagsalita. Nanginginig. Naiiyak. Ganoon kami hanggang maka-dock ang boat,” he recalls. When they arrived at the docking area around 11pm, they immediately brought Kelly to the nearest hospital, but he was declared dead on arrival.

This rescuer wanted to save more lives in the Tuguegarao flood—but he ended up losing his own 4
Photo taken during their oath taking at BFAR Region 02. Kelly got a permanent position as Fishery Law Enforcement Officer I.

Morning visit

That night, Villarao’s wife of four years, Melanie, felt strangely restless. It had become a regular habit for her and Kelly to do video calls at 11pm, 2am, and 4am while he’s on duty, because those were the hours their four-month-old baby, Khyle Nathan, is awake. “Usually, siya ang unang nagte-text para itanong, ‘Ma, gising na ba si Khyle?’” says Melanie. But she never got a single text message from her husband that day. “Tinawagan ko sya pero hindi rin sya sumasagot. Nagwo-worry na ako noon, pero iniisip ko, baka busy lang sya o na-lowbat ang phone nya.”

There was no electricity then so it was quite warm, but Melanie suddenly felt a cold breeze in their room. She even felt a dent on their bed, as if someone had sat on it. “Sabi ko, ‘Khyle, parang may kasama tayo.’ Pero hindi ko inisip na merong nangyari kay Kelly. Tinatawagan ko pa din sya at hindi na ako natulog nun.”

At four in the morning, Melanie received a call from an officemate saying a rescuer from BFAR had died. “[Si Kelly] talaga ang unang pumasok sa isip ko. Tinry kong kumontak sa mga kasama nya pero walang sumasagot.”

At five in the morning, Melanie got a text message from a college classmate asking, “Melai, totoo ba?” 

Ang alin?” she texted back.

Her friend said she heard Kelly died during a rescue operation. Melanie immediately called her boss. She also tried reaching Kelly’s officemate Jenna, and his other teammates. “Nagri-ring lang ang phone nila, walang sumasagot. Dun ako nagtaka. Bakit hindi nila sinagagot ang tawag ko?” says Melanie.

It turns out Buguina was aware of Melanie’s heart condition, so the plan was to go to her personally and tell her what happened. “Kasi kung gabi at wala siyang kasama sa bahay, baka mahimatay,” says the OIC. “So sabi ko sateam, damage control na lang.” Unfortunately, roads weren’t passable at that time, so they had no choice but to relay the bad news over the phone.

Melanie got a call from BFAR regional director Milagros Morales around 7AM the following day, November 14. “Pagtawag sa akin ni director, alam ko na,” she says, whimpering. “Wala na si Kelly.”

This rescuer wanted to save more lives in the Tuguegarao flood—but he ended up losing his own 5
Kelly and baby Khyle's morning selfie. "Pag hindi sya naka-duty, si Kelly ang nagpapadede kay baby tuwing 11pm, 2am, and 4am," shares Melanie.

Final days

Looking back at the days leading to Kelly’s demise, Melanie realized her husband had expressed his farewell to the people closest to him. She remembers him to be very happy that week. He kept on carrying Khyle, talking to him and hugging him.

In one of their recent conversations, she heard Kelly talk to their son, “Anak, magpapakabait ka ha. Paglaki mo, ikaw bahala sa mommy mo.” Then she told Melanie to study driving so that she can go wherever she wants, even when he’s no longer around.

A few days before the tragedy, Kelly insisted they visit his parents in Brgy. Gonzaga, Tuguegarao. Melanie thought the idea unusual. It was already late in the afternoon. But her husband was excited—it was after all going to be the first time his parents will see baby Khyle. 

Ang saya-saya nyang nakipagkuwentuhan doon,” recalls Melanie. “Isang oras siguro kami doon. After that, nagyaya na syang umuwi.”

Kelly and Melai met each other in college. Melanie’s course was BS Marine Biology. Kelly’s was BS Fishery. They had one class together. Eventually, Melanie would end up working at BFAR’s national stock assessment.

Siya yung tipo ng tao na inuuna ang iba bago ang sarili nya,” Melanie says, describing her husband. He never hesitated to help if he had the means to do so. “Sobrang matulungin talaga sya, base na din sa kwento ng mga kaibigan at katrabaho nya,” says Melanie. “Kung meron pang mas hihigit sa salitang napakabuti, responsable, at mapagmahal, yun sya. Sobrang bait talaga nya. Kahit na pagod na pagod na sya, wala kang maririnig na reklamo sa kanya. Pag nagkakasakit sya, hindi nya sinasabi, basta kaya niya. Ayaw nyang nakikitang nagwo-worry ang mga mahal nya sa buhay. Sosolohin nya ang sakripisyo, hangga’t kaya niya.”

Buguina, who had worked with Kelly Villarao for about three years says everyone in their team knew Kelly for being dependable and for being a jester. “Maasahan mo talaga sya. Mawawala ang pagod mo kapag yan ang kasama mo, kasi mahilig siyang magpatawa.”


For those who wish to help Kelly’s family, you may send your donations to Melanie’s Land Bank of the Philippines account: 3706-1223-96.