ST ON THE GROUND, AUDIO

Typhoon Haiyan: 'Worst six days of my life,' says US man who lost touch with his Filipino wife and children

For retired New York Police Department (NYPD) detective Martin Gillespie, the past week was "the worst six days of (his) life".

It began on Nov 8, the day Typhoon Haiyan pummelled through central Philippines, laying waste the city of Tacloban in Leyte province.

Mr Gillespie, from Jupiter, Florida, recounts that his Filipino wife and three children were in Tacloban when the typhoon hit, and he hadn't been able to get in touch with them since then. 

"It was horrible. One minute everything's wonderful, the next minute it's destroyed," the detective, who is in his 60s, tells The Straits Times.

Mr Gillespie and his wife, then 22, got married eight years ago. They met while he was on a two-week vacation in the Philippines.

Instantly, he was smitten and within the year, they were married. "She's such a wonderful woman."

Mr Gillespie can only spend half the year in the Philippines to be with his family due to restrictions on his visa.

He was in Florida when news broke of Haiyan developing into history's most destructive typhoon, and it's path leading straight to Tacloban.

He quickly flew to Manila, but before he could hop on to another flight to Tacloban, the airlines announced that they had grounded all their planes.

"If I had booked my flight one day early, I would've been there," he lamented.

"I would've made a big difference if I were there," he adds, explaining that he used to be a lifeguard.

He flew to Cebu from Manila and from there tried every possible way to get to Tacloban. He had completely lost contact with his wife, and the people he knew in Tacloban also were unaware of their whereabouts.

When the Philippine government and support groups began issuing lists of those who survived and those who did not, the names of his wife and children were not there.

It wasn't until Wednesday when he finally managed to book a Cebu Pacific flight to Tacloban.

"The only time I was happy was when I learned about this flight," he says.

Mr Gillespie is a quintessential tough guy, his big bulk adorned by a huge tattoo of a viking on his left bicep.

But on his flight to Tacloban, he hunched his shoulders, and even when he smiled over a fond memory, there was melancholy in his voice. It was apparent that while he was trying to keep his hopes up, he was also steeling his nerves for the worst.

When he landed, he saw with his own eyes the devastation wrought by Haiyan, and his heart sank.

"It's like travelling through hell," he says on the ride from the airport to his home in Tacloban, a journey perforated with the smell of rotting corpses.

But as he reached the road leading to his house, his spirit quickly lifted when he saw that most of the surrounding houses were still standing and, apart from shattered roofs and debris along the road, the place seemed to have withstood Haiyan's onslaught.

When he reached his house and found it still standing, he jumped out of the van, ran towards the gate and with a wide smile on his face embraced two housekeepers who told him that his wife and children were safe.

The tearful reunion, however, will have to wait. His family had packed up and left for neighbouring Samar province after Haiyan moved on.

Still, it was a tragedy that for Mr Gillespie at least had a happy ending.

rdancel@sph.com.sg