By BENJIE OLIVEROS
Talks of the impending Big One, the strong earthquake that would result from the inevitable movement of the West Valley Fault makes me relive the nightmare of the Baguio earthquake in 1990.
Yes, I was in Baguio City when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Luzon island and badly hit the Pine City on that fateful Monday of July 16, 1990 at 4:26 p.m.. I, together with a co-facilitator from the consultancy NGO Masai, was conducting a NGO management training for Cordillera-based NGOs. We were in a wooden seminar house at Quezon Hill.
The participants were having a workshop then and we, the two trainers, were talking about how the training was proceeding and the responses of the participants, when the ground began to shake.
One participant shouted “Everybody out!” and was leading a group of participants running out of the house. We stood up and counted the participants running past us. I saw one participant sitting on a sofa frozen with fear. I ran toward her shouting “Out!” repeatedly. When I was about to reach her, she looked at me, stood up and ran outside the door. We had to navigate through the bar, chairs and tables moving toward the center of the room.
Outside the grounds, we counted the participants to make sure that everybody was able to make it out while trying to maintain our balance with the ground shaking violently. Somebody suggested that we link arms. So all 20 of us linked arms. That helped us to remain standing up.
But then, the ground began to bounce us up and down. We all fell like bowling pins. So we just held hands while trying to maintain our balance and looking at our surroundings if any tree or post is in danger of falling toward us.
After what seemed like an eternity, the ground stopped shaking. We reentered the seminar house and gathered our belongings. I looked at my bed with all the broken picture frames on it and said to myself, “We were still lucky it did not hit at night when we were all asleep.”
We discussed what to do and decided that it is safer to stay on open grounds so we headed to Burnham Park and saw that it was already full of people. So we found a spot at Rizal Park. By then, the aftershocks were coming one after the other.
We hardly had any sleep that night. To keep everybody calm and to divert our attention, we played riddles and mind games. We kept up with it until all of us were too tired and sleepy that we could no longer stay awake. But we hardly slept as each aftershock woke us up prompting us to look at the trees around us if any was in danger of breaking.
In the morning, we took stock of our food supplies and realized that we had nothing left, except for two liters of coke. So we passed the coke around, drinking a gulp each. We then formed two teams to set out while the others remained on our spot: one would do the rounds of NGO offices in the city; the other team would gather news from bus stations. We, the trainers, were naturally part of the team that would do the rounds of bus stations.
What we gathered were news of the devastation. Baguio City was isolated with all roads leading to it impassable because of the landslides and all telephone posts and lines of Piltel destroyed. (There were no cell phones yet at that time.) There were even news reports of people trying to scale the landslides at Kennon road falling down the cliff.
When we returned to our spot, the other team was there. They told us that the staff and members of NGOs and people’s organizations (POs) were gathering at the office of the Cordillera Women’s Education, Action Research Center (CWEARC).
When we arrived at CWEARC they were about to hold a meeting. The first agreed upon task for the first day after the earthquake was to account for all NGO and PO members and to search for food for everybody. We, the visitors, were assigned to teams that would look for food.
We made the rounds of Session road, ran and lined up at any store that was open to sell food. We bought anything that was available, and it was not too many.
While looking for food, we went around to look at the devastation. It was surreal. It was like a nightmare. A lot of people were moving around dazed, worried, grieving, crying.
The sight of collapsed buildings was a nightmare. Relatively new buildings fell like a stack of cards, but the old buildings remained standing unmarked. It should have been the other way around but construction shortcuts and the passing of bribes to building inspectors brought this destruction upon us.
People in the upper floors survived but those at the ground floor must have been crushed to death. There were talks of people panicking then the cries for help slowly fading.
The stench of formalin and the sight of curtains covering the sidewalks and streets in front of funeral parlors were like scenes in a nightmare. There were just too many dead people for the funeral parlors to accommodate. And it was just the second day.
I was able to talk with a miner who said he came from rescue operations in one building and was proceeding to another collapsed building to help out in tunneling for survivors to crawl out from. The mineworkers of Benguet were the first responders. They rushed to the city to help out.
When we arrived at the CWEARC office another meeting was held. It was reported that all those who could be contacted were accounted for and it was decided that relief operations would be organized. That night, we again hardly slept. We had to find our space in the house. But every time an aftershock was felt, people shouted and ran out of the house. By around 2 a.m. I was just too tired to care and just slept.
In the morning of the third day, teams set out assessing the damage, prioritizing the areas for relief distribution and gathering supplies.
My companion and I headed for the bus station to ask about the first trips out of Baguio. Two bus drivers and a conductor told us that nothing was definite yet. If we wanted, they said, we could join them next morning in walking down through Naguilian road, which was longer yet safer than Marcos Highway and Kennon Road, because it was not too steep.
So that night we said our goodbyes and the following morning we were at the Victory Liner bus station by 9 a.m., the agreed time. At first, I thought only a few people would brave the long, dangerous walk, perhaps only visitors like us who were desperate to find a way home. We were worried because our relatives in Manila did not even know if we were dead or alive.
But when we reached Naguilian Road, there were many people taking the journey with us. We looked as if we were in a pilgrimage. All of us had our stories. There was a student who told me that he was going down to inform his relatives that his cousin, who was also a student in Baguio, died in the earthquake. Others also had their stories to tell, mostly about the death of relatives and friends. There were also people walking up the road to Baguio City. They looked terribly anxious and worried.
It was a long walk down Naguilian road. Often, we had to climb over landslides, not daring to look down. There were around three to four lines of people scaling the landslides. But there were times when aftershocks came while we were scaling landslides. Some people farther up from us panicked and tried to move fast causing stones to fall on us. So we shouted at them asking them not to panic and just walk.
We neither felt the pangs of hunger nor the pains of the long walk. There were times when people talked; there were moments of silence. All of us must be processing in our minds what we have just experienced. But we all felt affinity toward each other after sharing the same traumatic experience. Tragedy seems to bind survivors together.
When we reached the highway boundary of La Union, there were a lot of jeepneys waiting. We took one and traveled some distance before going down, scaling another landslide then taking another jeep. When we reached La Union, we were told that we had to take the bus to Dagupan, Pangasinan province before taking another bus to Manila. We were told that the road to Manila from La Union was destroyed so we had to take a longer route.
The bus trip going home was the longest I have taken in my whole life. Yes, it was a long, circuitous trip. But the anxiety of not being able to proceed because of destroyed roads and the strong yearning to get home and leave the nightmare of the Baguio quake behind made the trip even longer.
I finally reached home at 11 p.m. It was a 14-hour trip that usually took five to six hours. The exhilaration of entering our home was indescribable. It was as if I was given a new lease in life.
There is nothing we could do to prevent an earthquake. It is a force of nature, a natural occurrence. But the devastation that could result from it is not inevitable. It could be prevented if only we are better prepared when the next Big One hits the country.