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Typhoon chaser escapes Tacloban: 'We needed to get the hell out'

updated 4:38 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
Soon after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban, desperate shop owners tried to extinguish fires that broke out in buildings with small buckets of water, storm chaser James Reynolds said. Soon after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban, desperate shop owners tried to extinguish fires that broke out in buildings with small buckets of water, storm chaser James Reynolds said.
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Fires burn out of control
Storm hits Tacloban hotel
Storm chaser injured by sheet metal
Body bags aboard flight
C-310 flight to Cebu
Safe and away from Tacloban
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Storm chasers tell of dramatic escape from Tacloban after Super Typhoon
  • Three-man team escaped on military C-130 on Saturday, day after storm
  • Team member's leg was gashed by sheet metal, feared infection would set in
  • By day two, reality was starting to sink in for survivors, James Reynolds said

(CNN) -- Just over 24 hours after Super Typhoon smashed into the coast of Tacloban just two blocks from their hotel, the three-man team of professional storm chasers knew they had to get out.

Outside, the water was more than waist deep, roads were clogged with debris, and one of their team members, Mark Thomas, had a deep gash to his leg, inflicted by a jagged piece of sheet metal that sliced into him, unseen beneath the swirling water.

"On Saturday we realized we needed to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, mostly because of Mark's leg," said James Reynolds, founder of Earth Uncut Productions.

He and Thomas were joined by Josh Morgerman, who runs iCyclone.com, a storm chasing site from the U.S. When the typhoon hit they were working with CNN anchor Andrew Stevens and producer Tim Schwarz.

READ: Storm chasers, CNN team rescue people trapped in hotel

Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the capital of Leyte province in the eastern Philippines early Friday morning, creating "blinding rain, absolutely ferocious winds (and) deafening sounds," Reynolds said. "Windows were blowing out, water was cascading down the staircases in the hotel, flooding all the rooms."

After a couple of hours, the storm surge hit, flooding the hotel's ground floor before conditions eased enough to venture outside. Dazed survivors with cuts and bruises searched for anything they could salvage beneath the wreck of their homes.

However, Reynolds said on day two, some were raiding abandoned shops for food and water. Pharmacies were being targeted, presumably for medication. He also saw some people carrying electrical appliances, useless in a town without electricity and covered in water.

READ: 'Worse than hell' in typhoon-ravaged Philippines

"People in the Philippines are great and they're tough and they're good at fending for themselves. But the problem is in a situation like that, the more desperate people become for food and water, the more desperate their actions become," he said.

READ: Storm chaser: Like a disaster movie

A sense of foreboding was starting to set in, Reynolds said, as people started to realize that everything they had and knew had been wiped out.

"In the immediate aftermath I got the sense that a lot of people didn't quite realize how serious the situation was and how badly it would escalate," he said. "Whilst we didn't personally feel threatened you could just sense it wouldn't take much."

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"I remember at one point looking at the security guard in the hotel and it wasn't because of any specific threat, but he had his gun in his hand, and he looked like he was anxious and preparing himself for something, and that was unnerving for me."

Back at their flooded hotel, the team planned a way to get out. They'd chosen the Alejandro Hotel because of its height -- at four stories it was one of the tallest buildings in Tacloban and they could see the airport from the roof.

OPEN STORY: Haiyan's impact

They could also see kilometer after kilometer of flattened buildings and debris covering roads turning what is normally a six to seven kilometer car ride to the airport into potentially a seven-hour trek over collapsed buildings and trees.

They were in their hotel room when they heard planes fly overhead.

"We rushed out of the room, sprinted up to the roof and watched the planes fly over the city. We were begging them, 'please land, please,' because we didn't know the state of the airport. When we saw one of the planes land, we thought, right, ok the airport's a viable option."

Reynolds and Morgerman set out, leaving an injured Thomas back at the hotel. They had handheld radios and within half an hour a call came from Thomas. He'd learned of another way out: a military staging post where the airforce was flying people out.

iREPORT: Looking for loved ones

"It was so uncertain -- we didn't want to give up our hotel room and food supplies because if we got to the staging post and they said sorry we couldn't help you we would have been in big trouble," Reynolds said.

Leaving behind most of their belongings, they carried the bare minimum to the military checkpoint where they registered their names and were told: "Yes, you can get out on an air force flight but you have to make your own way to their airport."

At that moment, a man Reynolds describes only as a general piped up: "There is a helicopter coming, come with me." "We ran with him," Reynolds said. "The chopper landed and we scrambled onto it and got ferried to the airport."

From there they boarded a C-130 with other survivors, and the bagged corpses of four people who didn't make it. They landed in Cebu and caught flights out of the Philippines. Thomas is currently being treated in hospital in Taipei.

Back in Hong Kong, Reynolds said it was clear the people of Tacloban had no idea of what was coming.

"The Philippines isn't used to getting storm surges -- it's not usually such of an issue so this would have caught people by surprise. They don't associate typhoons with the rising water levels like that."

The day before, his team had bought enough food and water for one week. There were no queues and shelves were well stocked. "It was like a usual day at the supermarket," Reynolds said.

Asked whether he thought the message had got out that the storm could be the biggest ever to make landfall, he said, "No, no, it can't have done."

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