For Temple Hills woman, tragedy in Philippines strikes close to heart


Fe Chisley, in the arms of her husband, Vernon, looks at family photos on a laptop in their Temple Hills home. Chisley left the Philippines for the United States 12 years ago. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Fe Chisley left her family in the Philippines 12 years ago to move to the United States, but from how much she talked and laughed with her sisters each day, you would have thought they lived next door.

She knew all the details of their lives, including the meal her younger sister Naomi, “the chef of the family,” had planned for their mother’s 88th birthday. They talked Thursday night as Naomi and another sister, Sarah, prepared spring rolls for the party the next day.

But the following evening, when Chisley called to wish her mother a happy birthday, no one picked up the phone. Calls to her sisters’ cellphones, which they always kept close by, also went unanswered.

After frantic calls to other family members, Chisley, 48, heard the news she still cannot believe: Naomi, 46, and Sarah, 50, had drowned early Saturday morning after a flash flood inundated their mother’s home in the southern Philippine town of Balulang, near the city of Cagayan de Oro. More than 900 others also died.

The sisters died while saving their mother on her birthday.


Sarah Benegildo, left, and Naomi Felicilda, right, sit with their mother, Herminia Felicilda, in 2010. (Family Photo)

“Today, they were laughing; the next day, they were gone,” said Chisley’s husband, Vernon. Chisley sat on the couch beside him in their Temple Hills home, her eyes puffy from crying, her small hands clutching his large fingers.

“They are just super, super sweet,” she said, clicking over a computer screen filled with snapshots of her smiling sisters. Sobbing, she added, “I keep calling their names.”

Across the Washington region, home to about 200,000 Filipinos, churches and community groups have begun collecting money to help the tens of thousands who were displaced by the flooding and are in need of drinking water, blankets, clothes and food.

Local Filipinos have donated about $5,000 via community organizations, said Bing Branigin, media director for the National Federation of Filipino American Associations. Feed the Hungry, a D.C.-based Filipino organization, has sent $10,000, she said.

“Filipinos are very extended families, so a lot of them are coming from that province, and they are aggressively pushing for fundraising,” Branigin said. Local Catholic churches, where many of the families worship, are collecting money at the midnight Masses scheduled around Christmas, she said.

Across the United States, Filipino Americans “are breaking into their piggy banks right now,” said Napoleon Curameng, regional director of the ANCOP Foundation USA. Those donations, many in the amounts of $20, $50 or $100, have totaled more than $6,000.

Chisley’s family members, who live near mountains, were used to minor floods during storms. When a typhoon started Friday night, they were not worried. When a third sister, who had left the house to visit another relative, sent a text message to check on them, they said they were watching TV and were fine.

An hour later, the street outside their house had become a river, and the water had risen to their mattresses. Sarah and Naomi upended a bed and hoisted their mother on top. They stood on either side to keep the bed from tipping over and told their mother not to be scared because they were there.

But the water kept rising. “The last words Naomi said were, ‘Sarah, I cannot breathe anymore,’ ” Chisley said, recounting her mother’s account of the ordeal. Shortly after, Sarah, too, fell silent. When the water receded a few hours later, their mother found their bodies, covered in mud, on the floor.

For Chisley, who had not visited her family in seven years, the tragedy comes after health problems, including ovarian and uterine cancer, had kept her from traveling. She helped provide for her family and was planning a visit next year. She had already filled a bag with gifts for her sisters. Instead, thanks to a ticket donated by a friend, a retired airline employee, she will leave Wednesday on a 21-hour journey to help bury them.

She is grateful for the gift but wishes she were already there to comfort her mother.

“If only I had wings like a dove,” she said, “I would fly right away.”

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Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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