Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Baguio Earthquake of 1990

A full 21 years ago today an intensity 7.7 double-quake hit Baguio City and many parts of Luzon. I was there when the hills shook, roads cracked, walls crumbled, and buildings collapsed. I was there when nights that followed were dark and cold and hopes began to dim that breathing bodies could still be dug in the ruins of the Hyatt Terraces Hotel where my wife worked. I was there when the stench of dead bodies mixed with powdered concrete and began to waft in the otherwise pine-scented air. And most probably I could now profess to the truism of the words "We learn geology the morning after the earthquake" (by the American poet, lecturer and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson). It is ironic, however, that even as I get animated each time I make an oral rendition of the sights, sounds, smells, shivers, and shakes of that fateful day and the days and weeks that followed, up to now, now that the wounds in the hills have healed and thick grass and/or new buildings have covered the signs that a huge quake indeed once devastated Baguio and vicinity, I have not yet put on paper my personal impressions of the novelty of it all. But not one to pass a chance to mark the event, I opted to present here a prize-winning account, written 11 years ago (or 10 years after the earthquake), by someone who was with me when the big shake happened.

The July 16, 1990 Baguio Earthquake:
A Personal Account

By Leia Fidelis Gisela F. Castro

Almost everyone who was in Baguio City when the July 16, 1990 killer quakes struck  will never forget the experience of it all. Survivors’ accounts of the earthquake are still entertaining, even if they are already a decade old. Some are dramatic, others tragic, some are comic. But none could compare to actually having a personal encounter. This is my story.

It was around three weeks to my eighth birthday when the tragedy hit my home city. My family has lived in Baguio since the seventies. For all of us, it is the most beautiful place on earth. My father was then a researcher at the University of the Philippines Los Baños; my mother was a coffee shop supervisor at the Hyatt Terraces Baguio. I was studying at the Saint Louis Laboratory Elementary School together with my older brother and sister.

The Tragic Day
That fateful Monday started off normally for all of us. We kids went to school, my mom left for work and my dad was to leave for Laguna. There was no premonition that disaster would strike that day.

At twelve noon, I was walking home from school when I met my father near my school’s gate along Gen. Luna Road. He said he didn’t feel like travelling that day, so he fetched me instead. We bought some newspapers and went home. I remembered playing with my puppy named Gringo and making a mess in the living room. Around 2 p.m. I fell asleep beside my dad, who was reading the newspapers.

For a seven-year-old who knows so little about earthquakes, I had no idea what caused the tremendous jolt that woke me up around 4:30 that afternoon. I heard a very loud whipping sound, like that made by the wind during strong typhoons. Thinking it was a case of the hurricanes I saw on TV, I innocently asked my father “Ano yun, daddy, ipu-ipo?” He answered “Hinde, lindol!” My brother, who had just arrived from school, ran into the bedroom also terrified. My dad told him to go under the study table. But then the shaking would not seem to stop. My father then carried me and the three of us scampered outside the house as another tremor started shaking everything in our part of the world.

A few hours after the two major tremors hit, we started receiving news about how much damage was done. Major buildings collapsed, roads were destroyed, friends and relatives were missing, all city services were cut off, hospitals were overflowing with patients, many people were dead and a lot more were trapped under the rubble.

When my sister arrived, my father left us and ran all the way from Lualhati to my mom’s place at Hyatt Terraces. Word reached us that the hotel was badly damaged and that my mom was in a meeting at the basement of the apartelle that fell down.

The remains of the Hyatt Terraces Hotel along South Drive, Baguio City, days after the 7.7 double earthquake of 16 July 1990. The men in helmet are volunteer miners and mining-disaster veterans from the Philex Mines. [Photo from accessed through]

A number of my mother’s co-workers indeed got trapped in the collapsed building. But as luck would have it, she was not in the hotel that time because their meeting was cancelled and she instead went to a house near Camp John Hay to give condolences to a co-worker whose brother died a day before.

Looking Around the City
After learning that our family (including my two student aunts) was in tact, that same evening my dad and I went hiking to see the situation at Hyatt. I remember seeing a lot of fallen trees, twisted fences, leaning electric posts, cracks on the roads, abandoned cars, and people outside their houses and on their knees praying the rosary.

I recall seeing the East wing of Hyatt first. It looked warped as part of its foundation collapsed. Windows were broken and around 3 to 4 ropes made out of knotted bed sheets and clothes were hanging from some rooms on upper floors. This was where some of the guests made their way out of the building. The main entrance had only broken windows and some cracks.

When we got to the west wing, I saw fires burning around the parking lot and the Igorot garden. The fallen apartelle looked like pieces of sliced loaf bread, piled and pushed on one side. People around were running, shouting and crying. I think I even saw men pulling out live and dead bodies from the rubble. Some (like my mom) were shouting orders to do this and that… and still some (like my dad and me) were just curiously looking on (or making “usi” as they called it then).

Later that night we slept under makeshift tents in our front yard at Lualhati, near the Mansion House. Of course, it was an enjoyable event for my siblings and me, since pup tents were part of our playthings under the pine trees of nearby Wright Park then. I recall peering at the stars twinkling so brightly, as if they were assuring me that everything will soon be okay. I don’t think I would ever appreciate stars that way again.

The next morning, I joined my dad again to do another “inspection trip” of the city. This time we were with a friend who had a car, thus we were able to visit more places. At the back of the Baguio General Hospital we saw cars pinioned to the ground by fallen walls. We checked on some of the fallen buildings like Hotel Nevada, the University of Baguio, the FRB Commercial Complex, Baguio Park Hotel and the Skyworld.

We also visited some of the more populated places like Aurora Hill, Brookside, Bonifacio and New Lucban. The situation was all the same: destroyed houses, improvised tents, and people living in the streets. We didn’t see human corpses but we did find dead kittens and dogs.

For a month or so my mom and dad were part of the volunteers at Hyatt, staying there from twilight till morn. To make up for their lost time with us, at daytime they would usually take us to visit other more places in the devastated city, on foot and walking long distances.

I saw for myself how huge the cracks were at the Baguio Cathedral. I felt sorry for the beautiful cement statues of Igorots at Burnham, some beheaded by the quake, some now lying helpless on the muddy ground. I also saw how deep the sinkhole at Magsaysay Avenue was. And, yes, I also smelled the stench of decayed flesh coming out from the rubble of erstwhile magnificent buildings.

Living Conditions and Necessities
All classes were suspended until August 20 but this was later on moved to September. Most of the time we kids in our neighborhood at Barangay Lualhati where we lived were just playing and running around. We didn’t seem to mind the situation we were in. Nor did we even bother to seek shelter when strong aftershocks occurred but instead enjoyed counting and feeling the tremors.

There was no electricity, so we relied on overpriced candles that often quivered with each aftershock or got extinguished in the misty winds of July. More than a month later, electricity finally came back. My playmates and I ran throughout the barangay shouting "May kuryente na! May kuryente na!” Indeed, the lights seemed to us a luxury after so many nights of darkness!

But then piped water was still a problem. And so we kids had our share of what our ancestors normally did in their time – get water direct from the source. Yes, long before moneyed strangers built a huge condominium over it, a live spring used to gush forth clear, cool and sweet-tasting water near Lualhati. There we could queue up for our laundry and bath and genuine spring water.

Food wasn’t much of a problem for our family, since we have sayote plants at our backyard. We ate sardines and sayote, until we couldn’t stand seeing sardine cans any longer. My mom brought home flour, eggs, coffee, cream, gelatin, jams and sardines that she bought from the remaining stocks at Hyatt. Most grocery stores were closed or would only sell minimal amounts of essential commodities like canned goods, batteries, candles, matches, milk and sugar.

Since my birthday fell on August 5, we could only afford a very simple celebration. We feasted on homemade pizza, spaghetti, buko pie and coke. My mom told me that we would have a better celebration for my next birthday. I understood our situation, since I was with my mom when she queued at the half-open grocery store just to buy a pack of pasta and tomato paste for my spaghetti.

Relief goods arrived after 4 to 5 weeks. We received some canned goods, rice and weird looking clothes. An evacuation center made up of two army tents was raised in our barangay but we didn’t go there since the house where we were renting was still strong and standing. A medical team also came to give free checkups, medicines, vitamin supplements, and water-purifying tablets. Fortunately, despite our situation, nobody got sick in our family. Our barangay officials also led the whole community in cleaning our place. There was a dumping site for garbage and the collection was strictly scheduled and followed by everyone.

My dad didn’t go back to work for a month. I recall him trying to explain to us that he had to be with my mom in doing voluntary service at Hyatt – as his way of thanking God for saving my mother and her other friends. They were there day and night, feeding the miners from Philex and other rescue workers assigned at Hyatt.

They tended the bonfires, made vats and vats of coffee, opened cartons after cartons of sardines, served interminable meals and snacks, and washed hundreds of cups and plates – simple things to keep the morale of the rescue workers and the relatives (waiting for word of the still unfound victims) high.

They were there when the girl Michelle Reyes [daughter of Hyatt executive Noli Reyes] was still heard crying “Mommy! Mommy!” under the huge mountain of fallen steel and concrete. They were part of the cheering when somebody was brought out alive – and the praying when a stiff body or a nameless limb was found.

They were there when Pedrito Dy was found still alive even after having been trapped for 14 days and even after the foreign volunteers gave up all hope of finding any survivor.

My mom was among the last to leave the place when the miners finally found the last body [that of her friend Fely Rimando] at the end of September.

Starting Again
School finally resumed on September 17 and extended until April 1991. Of course, the first thing they asked us in class was what we did during the earthquake. All my classmates and teachers were alive. A week after, our school celebrated a thanksgiving mass and we were all asked to pray for those who perished.

My mother lost her job and a number of friends at Hyatt. But as if to compensate for everything, my dad later got an assignment with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Baguio City came to life again. The first thing the city hall people did was to make the new Baguio City a little more earthquake safe. Old and new fault lines were determined. Roads and other infrastructures were fixed. Building construction engineers were told to limit the number of floors per building to six. Structures and foundations were also improved.

The scarred mountains got back their pine trees and sunflowers. Most important of all, a lot of people regained their bearings and composure and started to build again. In fact, today, who would believe that Baguio ever got hit by that tragedy?

Turning a New Leaf
It has been ten years after that tragic moment. Our family left our beloved barangay Lualhati, which has been our home for over 10 years, and we moved to Camp 7. Our new place is quite far from the city proper, has still vestiges of greenery and serenity, and is not yet densely populated.

Slowly but steadily we recovered from the effects of the earthquake. However, up to this day there are times when I still recall and, yes, long for the days when Hyatt was still there. That institution was part of my and my siblings’ childhood. The earthquake took away much of my childhood memories… of cold December nights when we Hyatt kids would sing Christmas carols to hotel guests… of the paintings and the wall decors and the wood carvings that adorned the hotel’s hallways… of the trees and flowers and the fountains that formed part of the hotel’s premises. I felt something died in me too when I learned that there are no more plans to put up Hyatt in the same place again.

But one thing that the quake gave me was the valuable experience – which is why every time a small temblor comes, whether in Baguio or in Los Baños, I just take it for granted. Why? Simply because I have been there before. And so I feel like next time another big one strikes, I will no longer be terrified. I now know what to do. I now know what victims and their surviving friends and respective families need.

I have learned a lot from that event. I learned that strength is not the only basis of survival, we need to have faith in God and in others, unity and cooperation to achieve our goals. I learned that everyone must put away aloofness and pride and instead help those in need. I learned that we must not take for granted what we have because we might lose them in just a blink of an eye. Above all, I found out that we Filipinos are blessed with good traits, that even in the midst of disasters and calamities we could find our way and even come out laughing.

The earthquake proved to me that nothing is resilient. Everything can change and so have I – particularly because I have grown from being a precautious eight-year-old observer to an almost 18-year-old young adult who now writes of her experience.

Looking back, I now feel several notches above my peers simply for having been one of those who experienced the earthquake and lived to tell about it. Truly, I could say “HEY, LOOK, I WAS THERE… AND I HAVE SURVIVED!”

1 comment:

  1. Actually the last body we retrieved was in December 1990 and he was returned to his family for a proper burial before Christmas of the same year.