A 47-year-old man from La Paz, in the Agusan del Sur province of the Philippines, had last felt solid ground under his feet in 2014, before climbing a 60-foot-tall coconut tree near his house. He had never come down since, and would have probably stayed atop the tree till the end of his days, had authorities not rescued him by force recently.
The man, identified as Gilbert Sanchez, had apparently left his home to live atop a nearby coconut tree three years ago, after being hit on the head with a gun, during an altercation. His mother remembers that he was so afraid that someone would come to kill him that he felt that the only way to stay alive was to climb the tallest tree he could find and stay there. And that’s exactly what he had been doing for the last three years, surviving only on the food and water his mother brought him every day, which he would pull up in his tree haven with an improvised rope. He would relieve himself from the top of the tree, and not even the raging storms, the blistering heat or the ruthless insects could get him to come down.
Winifreda Sanchez, Gilbert’s mother, had been trying to convince him to come down from the tree at least to get a bath, but he always refused. All she could do for him was deliver food, water, clothes and cigarettes to him every day, hoping that they would at least keep him alive. She would shout to him to lower his rope, tie the supplies tightly, and he would hoist them up to his tree-top haven.
Aldrin Sanchez, Gilbert’s brother, said that both he and the other members of their family had been constantly pleading with him to come down, but he just waved them away.
“One time, I asked him to come down,” Aldrin told KMJS Exclusives. “He said ‘Be quiet, I won’t go down. Someone would kill me if I do.'”
A widower since 2000, when his wife died giving birth to their second daughter, Gilbert Sanchez didn’t even come down from his tree-top home when his mother told him that she was too old to take proper care of his children, and that they didn’t even go to school anymore.
Even though everyone in La Paz knew Gilbert Sanchez’s story, no one did anything about it until an obscure article about him went viral on social media and was eventually picked up by major news outlets in the Philippines. They sent film crews to his village, and their coverage finally convinced local authorities to help the man’s family get him down from his tree.
On October 11th, a team of 50 people along with Gilbert’s family tried convincing him to come down voluntarily, one more time, after which they started cutting down the coconut tree with a chainsaw. It was a difficult operation, as one wrong move could make the difference between bringing the man down safely or killing him, but in the end, everything went as planned, and Gilbert was once again on solid ground, after three long years.
Videos doing the rounds on Facebook show Gilbert Sanchez’s body covered in blisters and insect bites. He also suffers from muscle atrophy and his spine has become deformed after so much time spent crouching in the coconut tree. But the man’s mind is by far the most damaged.
According to a psychiatrist’s initial assessment, the 47-year-old exhibits symptoms of psychosis, including delusions, hallucinations and the fear that someone is trying to kill him. He has been put on a medication, and will have to take it regularly in order to have a normal life.
Gilbert’s tragic story made quite an impact on Filipino social media, with many users asking how they could help him and his mother get their lives back on track. A bank account in Winifreda Sanchez’s name was set up so people could donate whatever they could to their cause.