, DECEMBER 11, 2006
  (STAR) Learning from typhoon "Milenyo," Smartís Network Services Division (NSD) pre-positioned teams of engineers and two to three riggers at 13 relay stations in nine Bicol provinces that lay in the path of super typhoon "Reming." The idea was for the engineers to begin restoration work immediately after the howler passed their respective locations.

The teams were deployed on the afternoon of Nov. 29, just as "Reming" struck. They took shelter in the equipment vans at the relay stations.

All these relay stations are located on hilltops, making them highly vulnerable to storm winds. It takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half of trekking to reach these relay stations.

The one on Mt. Telegrapo in Sto. Domingo, Albay, which links Catanduanes to the rest of the network, faces the Pacific Ocean. It got hit by the full force of "Reming," which packed winds up to 265 kilometers per hour.

Ed Astillero, the engineer assigned at the Telegrapo relay station, marvels at how, throughout the nerve-wracking experience, Smartís signal never failed. His cellphone battery had run out, moments after his anxious wife called and pleaded with him to come down from the hilltop and seek safer ground.

"I told her that we would be in graver danger if we did that. When we felt that we were not safe inside the van, we could not even transfer immediately to the concrete guardhouse, which was a mere four meters away, because we were in danger of getting blown away. We had to wait for the winds to calm," he said.

Astillero said he and three others Ė two riggers and the security guard Ė shared the guardhouse before eventually moving to the restroom to escape the wrath of the storm.

"We shared a one-meter-by-80-centimeter space, with one of us standing on the toilet seat!" he said.

When he peeked through the barely opened jalousies and saw the van disintegrate wall by wall under the force of the wind, he felt a tear trickle down his cheek. He and his companions were safe.

"I had never prayed so hard before," he said.

Cris Magpantay, who has earned the monicker "batang veteran" of three typhoons since he joined Smart in May, heard about the van folding up in Telegrapo. Alone inside the equipment van at the relay station in Pinamalayan, Mindoro Oriental, he felt the onslaught of the winds outside and decided that it was time to make a dash for the guardhouse seven meters away.

Ruel Aspe, the engineer manning the station in Tagkawayan, Quezon, had to spend his birthday holed up in the container van housing the equipment while waiting out the storm.

"What am I doing here? Iím no Superman!" he thought to himself.

At 27, single, he has been through some of the harshest conditions in the line of duty. He was among the engineers who restored Smartís communi-cations facilities in the towns of Real, Infanta, and General Nakar when heavy rains triggered landslides and flash floods in the Quezon in December 2004.

Updating his superior on his situation, he sent this text message at the height of Reming: "Experiencing very, very strong wind with heavy rainÖ Our van is shaking terribly. Letís pray that our van withstands the wrath of the typhoon for our continuous service and shelters my team from danger outside."

Bong Cambusa, who was at the Mt. Kitwinan relay station in Albay, reported that some of the antenna had already been blown away. The same was true for the communications facilities of the rival telecom firm, he said.

"Malapit na akong atakihin sa puso at high blood. Pikit-mata na lang ako. Kayo na lang ang bahala, anuman ang mangyayari (I think Iím going to have a heart attack and high blood pressure. I am shutting everything out. Please do what you can, whatever happens)." This was how he closed his text message report.

His superior, Wilfredo Senes, takes pride in his team. Smart remained strong in Legazpi City, keeping the people connected even at the height of the storm.

Senes, who has been with Smart for eight years, handles network operations in Albay and Catanduanes. He has lost count of the number of typhoons he has experienced, but is sure "Reming" was the strongest. It left him a victim, its winds blowing away the roof of his house and, with knee-deep floods, left everything inside the house drenched.

Senes had tried to go home earlier, but found himself stranded at the crossing near the Cagsawa Ruins. He found himself looking at a vast expanse of water where houses should have been. When he heard that hundreds of townsfolk were missing and presumed dead, he was afraid to know what happened to his own house and family in Camalig, one of several towns lying at the foot of Mayon Volcano. He did not think he could bear any more dreadful news, he said.

"I donít know which emotion was stronger when the roads finally cleared and I was able to check on my family. I was relieved to see my wife and kids safe but I also felt sorry that I was not there for them at the height of the storm," he said.

His wife, he said, understands the nature of his job. She knows that in situations like this, she has to take charge of the home.

Gay Po, who heads the Smart wireless center in Legazpi City, also squeezed in time to check on her mom, who lives in Guino-batan, one of the towns hardest hit by Reming.

Once assured of her momís safety, she went back to over-seeing the free call center, which had to be set up outside the wireless center building because floodwaters were knee-deep inside the office and had destroyed files and equipment.

What could not be doused was the staffís morale, even though they themselves were victims, in a sense, with power out and food, water supplies running low. Dressed for the emergency, they either walked or took a tricycle to the wireless center, ready to assist residents, who made an average of 200 calls a day.

Free calls and free charging of mobile phones are also being offered in Sto. Domingo, Albay, as well as at the wireless center in Naga City.

Benson Panga, Naga City wireless center manager, said that a day after "Reming," they were also able to offer Internet access via wireless broadband Smart Bro, particularly to those with relatives based abroad.

Panga noted that they did not have to advertise the free calls. People somehow expected the service, based on their experience during typhoon "Milenyo," when Smart first set up the Libreng Tawag Center.

To Smart, itís all in a dayís work. But to subscribers, especially in disaster areas, communication lines may well be their lifeline.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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