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Philippine Coast Guard has 174 frogmen

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sno:
Ano na ba ang size ng PN SWAGs? batallion or brigade sized?.... Ito naman, news sa PCG SWAGs. see below:

Philippine Coast Guard has 174 frogmen belonging to the SOG group:

Frogmen risk all to save lives

Updated 11:49pm (Mla time) Oct 16, 2004
By Leila Salaverria
Inquirer News Service



Editor's Note: Published on page A21 of the October 17, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer


THESE men brave the dangers lurking in the deep, and often stare death in the eye.

They work in conditions of extreme heat and freezing cold, unmindful of stinging salt water, and even the stink of sewers.

They will plunge into the waters without hesitation to save lives.

They are the Philippine Coast Guard's frontliners -- the everyday heroes of the Special Operations Group (SOG) who lead search and rescue and retrieval missions involving tragic water accidents in the country.

Master Chief Mauro Angeles, 53, leads this elite group of specialists, also called frogmen, that is the PCG's equivalent of the Navy's Special Warfare Group.

Behind the scenes

Since 1992, Angeles has been quietly working behind the scenes of every sea tragedy in the country, searching for and rescuing survivors, retrieving bodies, luggage and other items that could provide clues for subsequent investigations, or serve as mementos to relatives and survivors.

It  
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is not an easy task, and definitely not for the weak.

But even if he has retrieved countless bodies from sunken or burning ships, downed airplanes or crammed sewers, Angeles confessed that he was still touched by each new experience.

"Even if the person you save is not your relative, you are always affected," he told the Inquirer. "That is why you need to be strong, not only physically, but you should be able to get a hold of your emotions as well."

Angeles recalled that he shed tears when he retrieved an 8-year-old boy from the wreck of the Laoag International Airlines plane that crashed into Manila Bay in November 2002, killing 19 persons.

A kick of hope

He performed CPR (cardiopulmunary resuscitation) on the boy in the hope of reviving him, and his legs would kick every time his chest was pumped and air was breathed into him, giving hope to the rescuer.

"I thought I would be able to revive the boy," he said after unsuccessful efforts to pump air into the frail body. When he realized the boy was gone, the tears fell. But he had to wipe them away soon, because there was a job that had to be done.

Of all the missions Angeles worked on, he said the most memorable was that of SuperFerry 14 early this year.

One hundred eleven persons are still unaccounted for after a terrorist bomb caused the ship to burn on Feb. 27.

Man's mortality

During retrieval operations, with a sea of burned and decomposing bodies before him, Angeles said he was reminded of man's mortality.

"Every time I remember that rescue mission, I realize that no matter how rich or how brilliant you are, in the end, you are nothing if a tragedy like that strikes you," he said.

But the SuperFerry 14 incident was also memorable in other ways. The physical hardships that the SOG teams had to endure during the retrieval of the bodies were unparalleled, he said.

After the 10,000-ton ship caught fire while on its way to Bacolod, it was towed to Mariveles, Bataan, where it rested on its side.

Because of the ship's position, the SOG men who entered the ship had to work in surroundings skewed at a 90-degree angle.

The deck where most of the bodies were located was six stories below them, and the SOG team had to rappel down the entire length with nothing underneath to catch them but twisted slabs of metal and charred furniture.

Recovered bodies

When a body was retrieved, the divers had to take extra care to strap the remains in stretchers or to place these in body bags as they were hoisted to the surface.

"We took care of the bodies and made sure these were not manhandled because they deserved nothing less," Angeles said.

And because the fire inside the ship took a long time to die, the SOG teams who entered the vessel had to contend with fumes, heat and ashes that filtered through their gas masks.

It was difficult and dangerous work. In fact, members of the Special Board of Marine Inquiry who were investigating the fire and who had visited the ship took note of the teams having been exposed to precarious working conditions.

Angeles said the work was hard, but they were armed with a little extra weapon: prayer.

"When we finished our work and all of us were safe, I thought, ang lakas ko kay Lord (the Lord watches over me)!" he said.

Given the kind of situations the SOG operatives work in, it is but natural that they possess skill, strength, extraordinary stamina and the right attitude.

Being accepted into the SOG is not easy, and the group is not called elite for no reason.

Surprisingly, Angeles said, knowing how to swim is not a major requirement. It can be learned.

Determination, discipline and the right attitude are what's important, he added.

Only males not older than 26 years old and not shorter than 5'4" are accepted for training. They must also be college graduates and should be physically fit.

But that is just the beginning. The demanding training program calls for jogging at high noon, swimming in cold waters, and learning to function and adapt to all kinds of weather and environment. They are also trained in explosives and ordnance handling, handy equipment in the light of terrorist threats.

They must be alert and be able to respond any time, 24 hours a day.

"We can't tell the ship captains or airplanes not to sink or crash at odd hours, which is why we have to be always prepared," Angeles said.

And sea-related accidents are not uncommon in an archipelago with more than 7,000 islands, all under the PCG's care.

Three days of 'hell'

Among the tests trainees have to go through is three "hell days" during which they must not drop off to sleep while doing numerous physical challenges, and a three-mile swim that they must finish in three hours or less.

Physical fitness is paramount in SOG work, but knowledge in safety measures is important as well. All divers must faithfully follow the buddy-buddy system, for one, and observe the 12-hour rest between dives.

The hazards of diving, on the other hand, include hearing loss and diving sickness, which cause paralysis or erectile dysfunction. Divers must also learn to contend with the smell of decomposing bodies, which clings to the skin.

Asked if divers could still develop an appetite after hours of seeing and handling rotting bodies, Angeles said they had no choice but to eat to regain their strength.

Divers usually eat without utensils when at a dive site, but he said this is okay since they wear gloves while working.

SOG trainees also have a "hell blast," where they are allowed to get drunk. The reason for this, said Angeles, is to get to know a trainee's real character, which surfaces when he is under the influence of liquor.

The SOG chief said those who love fights or become very troublesome when drunk were usually placed under observation to see if their attitude would improve or not worsen while working.

There are currently only 174 SOG operatives among the 3,500-strong PCG force, but they are frontliners, said PCG spokesperson Lt. Armand Balilo.

"When people think of the Coast Guard, they think of the divers," Balilo said. "It's a good thing they are everyday heroes."

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