Living to tell my 'earth-shaking' story

A man drives his tricycle past the quake-damaged San Isidro de Labrador church in Tubigon township, Bohol province in central Philippines on October 16, 2013. The 7.2-magnitude quake which hit Bohol and Cebu provinces on October 15, 2013, damaged chu
A man drives his tricycle past the quake-damaged San Isidro de Labrador church in Tubigon township, Bohol province in central Philippines on October 16, 2013. The 7.2-magnitude quake which hit Bohol and Cebu provinces on October 15, 2013, damaged churches, buildings and homes and caused multiple deaths across the central region. -- PHOTO: AP

EVERY Filipino has an earthquake story to tell.

The Philippines, after all, doesn’t sit on this “Pacific ring of fire” for nothing. Mine is the big one that struck Luzon on July 16, 1990.

I was working on some mundane police story at my old newsroom when it happened. I thought at first that it was just my head spinning because I hardly had anything to eat that day, and it was very hot and humid outside.

Then, I looked around. I saw in the faces around me and in the swaying typewriter on top of a wobbling table in front of me and in the swinging fluorescent lights a confirmation that it wasn’t, in fact, all in my head: The ground was indeed moving.

The thing about experiencing a big earthquake for the very first time is that you really won’t know how to react. You’re suppose to hide beneath a table, put something on your head, or head for the exit, the way you’re taught in school, but you’ll probably spend the first precious seconds of the event wondering whether the experience you’re having is real, the way I did.

The big one lasted for about a minute. It began as a mild shaking that quickly turned into a violent rocking half a minute later. It went on for another 30 seconds, and then it ended as abruptly as it began. Then came the aftershocks.

The odd thing was that we all just stood there the whole time, with our mouths slightly parted and a twisted determination not to look uncool. It wasn’t until the aftershocks came, and someone began to run for the door that a small stampede for the exit began.

All of us did make it out of the building safe and sound. After a couple more aftershocks and after waiting it out for an hour, we all headed back to the building to do our jobs. My editors started working the phones and barking orders. Reporters and photographers were promptly dispatched.

I was assigned to man the radios. We couldn't really get a sense of how immense the damage was back then as quickly as we can now. The Internet didn’t exist. We didn't have Twitter or Facebook. We didn't have mobile phones and text messaging, and pagers were still novelty items.

We had boots on the ground, but we had to wait for them to call with information. We had two-way radios, but these were deployed mostly to photographers and the most senior of our reporters.

We got our first reports by calling our sources, filtering through wire reports on very long rolls of newsprint, watching the news on TV, and listening to the radio. It was through the radio that we learned a Hyatt hotel and a six-storey school building in two provinces north of Manila had collapsed, and that the situation was far worse than we had anticipated. In the end, the toll would run up to over 1,600 lives lost.

One radio station I was monitoring reported that a makeshift elevator shaft at a building under construction not far from our newsroom fell apart with a couple of men inside. My editor sent me to chase the story.

When I reached the site, there was already a big crowd of rescue workers, traffic policemen, journalists and bystanders milling about.

I asked if anyone died. (The thing about journalists is that we’re always chasing body counts.)

Yes, I was told. When I asked for names, someone directed me to a weeping woman sitting on a pavement across the road.

She reminded me of my mother. She was small and reed-thin. Her skin was a deep mahogany brown, and it seemed like she had just gotten out of bed when she was unceremoniously rushed to the site as if her presence there would change the fact that her husband was now dead.

I think she spoke to me only because she needed a stranger to tell her story to, and that somehow it'd ease the shock of a horrible day.

She kept telling me that her husband, a carpenter, wasn’t even supposed to be there, that he went there only to collect his weekly pay cheque, and that he’d promised her and their son that he’d take them to a popular fast-food joint after he’d gotten his money.

I wanted to do something for this woman. I wanted to assure her that everything would be all right. I wanted to give her money. But there really wasn’t much I could do except tell her story and put on public record her husband’s death.

So, after confirming her name, age and address, I headed back to the office and wrote my story. Mid-way through, I called my mother.

rdancel@sph.com.sg