Pope Francis was forced to cut short his visit to the typhoon-ravaged city of Tacloban in the Philippines after a fierce storm killed a papal volunteer, Channel News Asia reported. Francis announced to an expectant crowd during a service on Saturday at the main cathedral that he would have to leave at 1 p.m., four hours ahead of schedule.
"I apologize to all of you," Francis said in Italian to the crowd via a translator, according to the Associate Press. "I am sad about this, truly saddened."
The pope said that the pilots of the Philippine Airlines jet he was set to board told him the weather would worsen after 1 p.m. and that they would "barely have time to get to the airplane," AP reported. Philippines weather bureau PAGASA has warned that tropical storm Mekkhala was expected to hit with maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour and gusts of up to 80 miles per hour. The winds are powerful enough to uproot trees and blow away roofs, according to PAGASA.
A church spokesman said that the volunteer died at the morning Mass when steel scaffolding collapsed on her, Channel News Asia reported. The pope made the 90-minute flight back to the Philippine capital of Manila safely.
Francis had said he wanted to visit the city of Tacloban in east Philippines, one of the hardest hit cities by Typhoon Haiyan, which struck on Nov. 8, 2013. The typhoon, the strongest ever recorded to hit land, left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, one million houses destroyed, and over 16 million coconut trees, which yield a major source of income for the city, knocked down.
"I wanted to come to be with you,” said Francis at Tacloban, according to AP. “It's a bit late, I have to say, but I am here."
Police estimated some 150,000 people – Tacloban has a population of about 200,000 – turned up in the enclosed area near the airport to welcome Francis, with tens of thousands more lined up outside waiting to get in. "I hope the pope can help us forget and help us accept that our loved ones are gone," said Mass attendee Joan Cator, according to AP. "We still cry often and don't talk about what happened."
Those who attended Mass were given a yellow poncho to protect them from the storm. Francis donned one over his vestments in solidarity. AP reported that winds whipped the altar cloth and threatened to topple over candlesticks as he spoke.
The pope even ditched his prepared speech at one point and spoke in Spanish - which he reverts to when he wants to speak from the heart, AP reported - to begin his sermon with a brief prayer. "So many of you have lost everything," Francis said in his speech, as many wept. "I don't know what to say to you, but the Lord does know what to say to you. Some of you lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart."