LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Tito John Belasa, a 47-year-old Filipino pastry chef on the Portuguese cruise ship Funchal, fought back tears Friday as he spoke about the frustrations of trying to get news about his family.
Belasa's relatives live in the Philippines, in one of the areas hardest hit by the Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands and left some 600,000 people homeless. "I have tried so many times since the beginning (of the catastrophe) to get through to them, but there's no connection," he said on the quayside where the Funchal was docked in Lisbon.
For Belasa and 300,000 Filipino sailors working on the world's high seas, getting news of their families' fates has turned into a lengthy and agonizing challenge. Roughly 20 percent of all seafarers — the men who live and work on cargo lines for months at a time — are from the Philippines and many may have lost friends or family in the superstorm.
One sister who lives in Hong Kong got word to him that Belasa's mother and a brother and sister who live on the devastated shore of Tabugon island are all alive. But two of his nephews are dead and another nephew and an uncle are missing.
"Every day I try to call and to search on the Internet, on Facebook, for news. Every day I'm searching, searching," he said, choking back tears. "What can we do?" From television news he knows that his hometown of Carles on Tabugon island is "totally destroyed."
Aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, bartender Julius Petersen Tosloc and other Filipino workers saw the disaster unfold on TV. Desperate for news, they bought expensive phone cards to try to call home but making contact was extremely difficult because so many phone lines were down. The situation has improved only slowly.
Tosloc reached his wife in the capital of Manila who said family members were OK, but he was unable to confirm whether his mother was all right. She lives in the battered city of Tacloban at the center of destruction.
"I was finally able to talk to my sister, who lives in the southern Cebu region, three days later and she told me my parents were OK, but the roof had been blown off their house," Tosloc said in Barcelona, where he disembarked to make his first lengthy call home.
A Filipino cabin attendant on the same ship fell into deep depression during the three days he was unable to get in touch with any family members. Tosloc and others pitched in to give him money so he could leave the ship when it docked in Naples.
"He didn't feel like talking to anybody and couldn't do his job anymore, so he took a leave of absence and went back," Tosloc said. Seafarer welfare organizations, shipping lines and seafarer unions have been working to help these Filipino men get word to and from their families, often from thousands of miles away in the middle of the ocean.
Some groups are providing free phone cards to sailors as they come into ports around the world, while others are providing free satellite phone calls from on-board the vessels and free online newspapers to give the men up-to-the-minute typhoon information. Sailor-specific social media sites with names like CrewToo and special Facebook pages are also filling in the information gap.
V. Ships, which provides merchant marines to vessels, has about 7,000 Filipinos working on ships around the world and about 2,600 of them are from the area affected by the typhoon, spokesman Patrick Adamson said.
The company has sent a team to the battered city of Tacloban to gather information about the families of the merchant marines on its rosters and is calling vessels directly with news for individual sailors.
The company has also assembled an emergency contact team in Manila to help coordinate communications between sailors and their families, Adamson said. "A guy who's on a ship miles away has no idea where his family is and he can do nothing about it. It's not like he can jump on a plane and go," he said. "He's in desperate straits."
Merchant sailors have been allowed to leave their ships and a few have done so but the company must find replacements so business is not disrupted, Adamson said. Filipino seafarers have turned to the North American Maritime Ministry Association, made up of port chaplains from various denominations around the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. The organization has members in every North America port and in some Filipino seafarers are asking for special Roman Catholic Masses on board or in port, Executive Director Jason Zuidema said.
The association planned to hold a board meeting by telephone Friday to discuss ways of helping the seafarers and their families. The Seafarers' House in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has reached out to cruise lines and was asked to perform Masses on board, Executive Director Lesley Warrick said.
Ministries also are reaching out at Port Newark, a major container terminal in the Port of New York and New Jersey. At least half of the sailors coming into the port are Filipino, said the Rev. Marjorie Lindstrom at the Seaman's Church Institute.
"It's more listening and being with them in this time of pain," Lindstrom said. "It's been amazing the resiliency they have."
Flaccus reported from Long Beach, Calif. Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York, Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Alex Oller in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.