Flight 387

By Mrs Rosie C. Cabillas as told to Mrs Roberta M. Luza

‘I’ll put down the phone now, Ma. I have to prepare yet to catch the nine o’clock flight for Cagayan de Oro. See you in March. I’ll meet you at the airport then so that you can attend my graduation. OK, Ma, bye.’ These were the parting words of my son, Artnee.

Archie and Artnee with their 
mom during happier times 

It was a casual telephone conversation early in the morning, Philippine time, of 2 February 1998. Artnee was calling from Fairview, Quezon City, while I was in Brisbane, Australia. What I wasn’t aware of was that it was the last time I’d talk to my son.

What happened after that conversation was a startling nightmare that shook me to the core. It was a miracle that I survived and coped with life in spite of what happened.

Our Family

Nicolas, my husband, and I were married on 17 May 1975 at Sto Niño Chapel, Brgy. Baga, now Sta Maria, Tangub City. We were blessed with two sons, Artnee and Archie. Artnee was a premature baby weighing four pounds at birth but grew up a healthy boy. Archie followed four years later.

Nick and I were both government employees. Nick worked with the Department of Agriculture as a farm technician while I was an elementary teacher in Tangub City Central School.

We lived a comfortable life, never wanting in material things, because aside from our salaries, we had other sources of income, which came from the sale of produce from the farm I inherited from my parents. We were able to send our two boys to the best schools that we knew. Artnee pursued a Physical Therapy degree at Liceo de Cagayan, Cagayan de Oro City, and was in his final year. Archie studied engineering at the University of San Jose-Recoletos, Cebu City.

My stay in Australia

My trip to Australia was made possible after I qualified for a two-month study grant at QueenslandUniversity, Brisbane, a joint venture of the government of Australia and the Philippines for the enhancement of teaching in the Project of Basic Education (PROBE), specifically in Mathematics, English and Science.

I left for Australia on 8 January 1998. I was occupied there most of the time with schoolwork, but also found time to look around and savor the beauty of my new environment. I enjoyed my daily tasks very much until that fateful day when my son phoned from Manila.

The nightmare

Early that morning, as was our wont in the boardinghouse, everybody watched the CNN news on TV. Nothing unusual happened except for some breaking news, which was about a plane crash in the southern Philippines that morning. Though no particulars were mentioned, the news kept bothering me.

Perhaps it was a mother’s innate intuition that my son must have taken that flight. So, I called my relatives in Manila to verify. Nobody was sure or maybe they didn’t want to tell me the truth. At about 10am, my school director called me to his office. With the help of a psychologist, he gradually revealed the news that I dreaded to hear. My son was indeed one of the casualties in that plane crash, Flight 387 of Cebu Pacific.

I was really shocked! I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was as if my head was swirling. My body felt numb. I felt that everything had stopped. What I heard was beyond what I could take. I cried my heart out. To think that I had talked to my son that very morning! How I wished I could have turned back the time and talked to him a little longer and caused him to miss his trip. It was my way of denial – a desperate attempt to escape reality, though deep in my heart I knew it was futile. It seemed that the world crumbled around me. I was really devastated. It was a nightmare! How I wished it was just a bad dream that I’d wake up from.

The tragic plight of my son cut short my stay in Australia. I had no choice but to go home. The compassionate school director provided me with a member of the school staff as a companion, knowing that I was emotionally unstable.

The agony of waiting

While waiting for the retrieval of the remains of my son, I stayed with some of the families and relatives of other victims at Grand City Hotel, Cagayan de Oro City, courtesy of Cebu Pacific Airlines. Although we belonged to different religious denominations, we prayed with one another. We found solace and relief telling stories about how good our loved ones were as family members and unique persons. But I preferred to be alone most of the time, trying to remember the past. Recalling happy moments and beautiful events we shared in our family eased the pangs of loneliness and emptiness I felt during those trying times.

The distance and the steep winding paths going to Mt Sumagaya made the rescuers’ work slow and difficult especially the uninhabited areas. Only a few of the bodies retrieved could be identified and claimed by their families. Most of them, Artnee’s included, were badly burned, mangled beyond recognition.

Finally it was decided that there would be a common burial of the unidentified remains at OroGardens, Cagayan de Oro City. The names of those who perished were inscribed on a large marble wall at the burial site. The burial ceremony took place on 28 March – 54 days after the accident. It was the saddest day of my life.

Picking up the pieces

I returned to work in June 1998. Because of my scholarship in Australia, I had to serve as an In-Service Facilitator of PROBE in selected elementary schools in the districts of Tangub City for two years. I also had some teaching loads in Grade One.

I had an earnest desire and intention to return to a normal routine in my work as a teacher and to divert my focus from grieving so much. God provided me with many tasks, which kept me busy. However, I discovered that nature’s healing process moves at a slow pace. It can’t happen at the snap of a finger. Lots of times I just shed tears to relieve the loneliness I felt for my lost son. His permanent physical absence gnawed at my heart.

Before and after the accident, I have never ceased praying to the Lord. I attend Mass and receive Holy Communion daily or whenever possible.

The way I coped

With the grace and mercy of God, I realized that as a Catholic, it was not enough to love, adore and honor God by myself, but to render service to others. Thus, through prayer, enlightenment and the direction of the Holy Spirit, I joined several church organizations. I became an active member of the Holy Infant Community, the Legion of Mary and the Adorers of the Holy Trinity and God the Father.

Meanwhile, God in His goodness gave my husband Nick, my younger son Archie and myself the opportunity to travel and see tourist spots not only in the Philippines but also abroad. We traveled to Hong Kong and China and to parts of the USA.The pain, suffering and sacrifices that I’ve experienced have made me a living witness of God’s love. In so many instances, I became a healing instrument to those who also had sufferings of their own, through sharing my
story with them. They call me ‘the wounded healer.’

Our gradual healing

Through my reflections, I’ve learned to accept God’s will in everything that has happened in our lives. My husband and I realize that as parents of Artnee we were only stewards of his 22 years stay on earth. Although nothing can really fill the void that he left in our hearts, we continue to lovingly cherish his memory, which has become part of our lives through the years.

As we commemorated his seventh death anniversary on 2 February this year, we were most grateful to God for having chosen us as Artnee’s parents and also thankful for the years he spent with us in our family. We know that he is now happy in heaven and our family has attained healing to some extent. Praise God!