After four days of hearing nothing from family in a typhoon-ravaged fishing village in the Philippines, Regina Balosca Sculley set off on her own rescue mission — an operation that would bring to safety 27 people piled into a rental van.
"It's unbelievable, it's like a movie," her husband, Michael Sculley, a retired U.S. service member who served two tours in the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s, told NBC News on Sunday.
"It was absolute elation to the point of bringing me to tears," he added.
A tired but happy Gina, 34, said she wishes she could have helped more people in her hometown, MacArthur in Leyte province, but she had to put her family first.
"I’m so happy and relieved of course that my family are finally safe,” she said by telephone from her home in Angeles City, north of Manila, adding, "I can’t depend on the government.”
Gina's family lived about 30 miles south of Tacloban, one of the cities hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan, which slammed into the Philippines last week with 170-mph winds and overwhelming surges of water.
She and seven friends who also had family in the affected area set off in a 12-passenger van from the northern Philippines at noon Tuesday, driving more than 600 miles south, through areas that local media had deemed lawless amid reports of a prison break and militia attacks on aid convoys.
"She absolutely feared for her life going down," Michael Sculley said.
Choking back tears, Gina said reports of carjackings and looting, combined with the lack of contact with her family, increased her worries. "Hearing this news (was) making the situation worse,” she said.
She described driving through the ruins of Tacloban, down roads lined by dead bodies and children begging for food.
When she reached her hometown early Friday, she found it had been leveled by the typhoon's tidal surge, but her family members were alive, living off coconuts, suffering from dehydration and other minor health issues, with no shelter and no communication with the outside world. The children suffered from fever and vomiting, Gina said.
"Most of the houses there are gone," she said. "When they saw my van ... people are begging for food."
She went to where her family's house used to stand -- and found her mother. Gina said she hugged her and told her, "I thought you were all gone."
The supplies the rescue team brought along -- 45 gallons of water, 110 pounds of rice, a few hundred dollars’ worth of non-perishable food, medicines -- were the first the villagers had received since the storm struck. As her group prepared to leave, Gina said, they saw U.S. troops dropping an aid package from a helicopter.
They set off for the return trip later on Friday. Gina's mother, her three elderly aunts, three young nieces and a young nephew were among those being rescued.
The others who piled into the vehicle for the 36-hour drive back to Angeles City were friends and relatives of people who work in the two restaurants owned by the Sculleys. About 15 other family members were given bus fare to make their way to safety.
The group made it home Saturday night. Michael Sculley described the arrival in a journal he kept throughout the week: "I just witnessed more people pile out of one van since the contests to see how many people would fit in a vehicle back in the 1950s," he wrote.
The Sculleys rented an unfurnished apartment nearby for the refugees, but they worry it will be difficult to take care of everyone in the long run.
"My personal elation was quickly curtailed yesterday, as the reality of housing and feeding 30 or so people hit home," Michael wrote in his journal Saturday.
But he added: "This has been a tremendous experience, filled with uncertainty and emotional highs and lows. A complete and total success in the end."