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Typhoon chaser: Water, wicked wind and fire add up to catastrophe in Philippines

By Michael Martinez, CNN
November 11, 2013 -- Updated 0727 GMT (1527 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Reynolds and his production crew arrive in Tacloban just to film the super typhoon
  • They change hotels three times, only to find themselves filming rescues in flooded hotel
  • Water, water, everywhere, yet nary enough to put out a fire in town, he recounts
  • Then, in the blackout after the storm, the sky is afire with lightning and flames

(CNN) -- It was the cruelest of ironies unleashed by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

One of the strongest ever recorded, the storm put the Philippine port city of Tacloban underwater, and storm chaser James Reynolds was there filming the natural disaster at what's been regarded as its ground zero.

Then, when evening fell, the town caught fire.

There was water, water, everywhere -- yet nary enough to put out a fire, Reynolds said.

The surge of sea water was followed by a sea of flames.

A man reconstructs his house in the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard on November 8, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 5,000 deaths. A man reconstructs his house in the bay of Tacloban, Leyte province, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard on November 8, leaving a wide swath of destruction, including more than 5,000 deaths.
Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
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Photos: Typhoon Haiyan Photos: Typhoon Haiyan
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The futility -- and absurdity -- of the moment was captured by one merchant using buckets of water against the inferno in his shop.

It was hopeless. The merchant didn't stand a chance, said Reynolds, who's from Oxford, England.

"One block of the city was up in flames, a raging fire was burning uncontrollably," Reynolds said in telephone interview from the Philippines.

"I honestly felt like it was some sort of disaster movie. It was so bad, it didn't seem real. This struck home hard that this was a city in a desolate state," he said.

'Worse than hell'

Nothing else like this storm

Haiyan was the worst storm that Reynolds, 30, has ever chased. Since 2005, he and his Earth Uncut Productions crew have filmed 35 typhoons -- plus a couple of major volcanic eruptions including Mount Merapi in Indonesia in 2010. They also covered the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami in 2011.

"It was without a doubt the most catastrophic event I've witnessed before my eyes," Reynolds said of the super typhoon. "To actually go through a disaster as it takes place and then be there afterward just compares to nothing. It'll probably be the only time in my life."

The experience wasn't without casualties to crew and gear, however.

One team member suffered a six-inch gash down to the bone of his leg, Reynolds said.

So the team managed to get a helicopter ride to the Tacloban airport. Road travel wasn't possible because downed trees and utility poles closed streets.

From the airport, the Philippine military was kind enough to give the film crew a plane ride Saturday to Cebu City, where medical care was available.

The storm also destroyed most of Reynolds' camera gear, so he used a small backup camera and even his iPhone to film the biblical-like flooding of Tacloban -- until his batteries began to die.

Philippines gets more than its share of disasters

The team had no choice but to cut short its extraordinary work in Tacloban.

Reynolds and his crew filmed the height of flooding while at a Tacloban hotel. There, guests on the first floor had to be ferried out of danger while afloat on mattresses, including one elderly woman escorted by good Samaritans wading through the waist-high water.

The first-floor guests couldn't open their doors against the rising water, so they smashed windows to try to exit. A CNN crew assisted; its members also were staying at the hotel.

"It was really put the cameras down, we've got to get out there and help these people. Otherwise possibly they could drown," Reynolds said.

The first-floor guests were taken to higher ground.

"The water was coming in everywhere, even in the heart of the hotel," Reynolds said. "And my camera gave up. All the batteries were drained, and there was no electricity."

'You could feel the whole hotel ... shaking'

Reynolds chose the hotel because it was made of concrete, was about five miles inland and had an elevation of four stories, well above the surge of ocean that was expected to sweep over the coastal city -- and did.

The crew got lucky: they checked into the last available room on the fourth floor. Even if there was no room at the inn, they would have slept in the hallway of the fourth floor, just for the safe refuge, Reynolds said.

"During the height of the storm, the scream of the wind was deafening. We could hear just thunderous crashes of debris flying through the air. At some points, you could feel the whole hotel, which was made of solid concrete, shaking," Reynolds said.

To film the apocalyptic moment, the crew arrived in Tacloban on Thursday from their Hong Kong offices. They initially checked into small waterfront hotel and then moved to a beach resort, but they abandoned both places as they received reports of the impending storm's ferocity.

Tacloban emerges as one of Typhoons Haiyan's most damaged targets

For all their efforts, they found the most cinematic moment in the silence after the super typhoon passed.

It was Friday night, and Reynolds was standing on his hotel's roof.

A blackout enveloped the town.

Then the sky became afire.

"You could see the city skyline illuminated by lighting. The city was up in flames. And it was surreal," Reynolds said.

For all the peril and loss, would Reynolds do it again?

"Yes!" he said.

But not for a while, he added.

How to help survivors

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