Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire. Written by Bam Alegre for SubSelfie.com.

We don’t even have to wait for March to talk about fire prevention. We can have this discussion during the first day of every New Year. Instead of enjoying Media Noche with their families, our firefighters are busy babysitting reckless people who are literally playing with fire through firecrackers.

Some say it’s our custom. Some say it’s tradition. And some just grew up with it. Whatever the reason, lighting up firecrackers does not seem to drive evil spirits away. It attracts them. Consider these teens from Dagupan Street Extension, Tondo.

They decided to welcome the New Year not with firecrackers but with street parties. On New Year’s eve, I was assigned to cover them for Unang Hirit and when I visited them with my news team they were dancing to familiar AlDub and KalyeSerye songs such as Dessert and Fantastic Baby. A few hours before, they also held a beauty pageant featuring men in drag disguised as Lola Nidora. In this image below, these residents had no clue that their houses would burn to the ground in just a few minutes.

Residents of Dagupan Street during their New Year party. They even designed identical shirts to show their unity.
Residents of Dagupan Street during their New Year party. They even designed identical shirts to show their unity.

As I was about to leave them at around 2:30 in the morning on January 1, panic and pandemonium suddenly erupted. What started as a small blaze became an inferno in just an hour. The residents could not control the fire and the first responders could not penetrate the narrow side streets cramped with homes made of light materials. By 4 o’ clock in the morning, authorities have already raised the situation to general alarm, the highest alert for all the firefighters of Metro Manila.

The fire started at around past 2am. By 4am, it has reached general alarm, the highest alert level for firemen
The fire started at around past 2am. By 4am, it had a life of its own.

The fire moved rapidly, consuming houses like a plague. It was raining but it had no effect on the fire at all; it just made life more difficult for the residents who were trying their best to save their loved ones and belongings. My cameraman Pete lived nearby and his house was in jeopardy. So I told him to focus on his family because my assistant cameraman Randy could handle the work. For a few minutes I was just standing in a corner, looking at the fire: stunned with disbelief.

It wasn’t just me. Most of the victims were out of their element. Many were already sleeping after their Media Noche. Most of the men were already under the influence of liquor. Some were crying. Some were panicking because they haven’t heard from their other loved ones. And some were really angry. There were residents who were trying to get the hoses of the firemen in order to save their homes. Some were verbally assaulting the fire volunteers because the fire trucks in the frontline ran out of water. I asked a fireman for his initial assessment and he told me the fire would worsen because many residents were not cooperating.

Tensions flared between the volunteer firefighters and the residents.
Tensions flared between the volunteer firefighters and the residents.
The fire was almost upon us. So I told my news team to retreat to a safer location.
The fire was almost upon us. So I told my news team to retreat to a safer location.
All of the firemen of Metro Manila were already in Tondo but the fire had a life of its own.
All of the firemen of Metro Manila were already in Tondo but the fire was too intense.

The sun was already up at around six in the morning when the authorities declared that the fire was already under control. But it wasn’t really over. There were still embers within homes that could engulf everything in flames again if left unchecked. But by this time, I already had an opportunity to assess the surroundings. Before the fire, I interviewed a birthday celebrant who was happily singing the night away in their karaoke; it was a double celebration because her OFW husband was also home. I found her again after ten hours and this was all that’s left of her home. But thankfully, her entire family is safe.

The home of the birthday celebrant has been reduced to ashes.
The home of the birthday celebrant has been reduced to rubble.

According to the initial investigation of the Bureau of Fire Protection, witnesses have described the cause of the incident as a wayward kwitis, a rocket-like firecracker. There was also a casualty, a man who tried to help but ended up trapped in a bathroom. The fire affected more than 500 homes and 2,000 families whose belongings are now ashes. The home of my cameraman Pete was spared but most of his neighbors are now living in basketball courts which have become temporary evacuation centers. Some chose to spend their days and nights in the streets. One of our news teams even encountered a man who was still wearing the Lola Nidora costume he had before the fire. It’s the only thing that he has left.

Is this the way it should be every single year? Do we really have to offer limbs, lives and livelihoods to welcome the changing of the calendar? The Department of Health is advocating a total firecracker ban for ordinary people and that only pyrotechnic professionals should be allowed to handle these. But this will be a tall and tough task to accomplish — especially because it goes against tradition. But just because a custom has been going on for a long time, that doesn’t really mean it’s already right.

Wise men say what doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger. And we can take comfort in the fact that the most expensive diamonds start out as the ugliest of coals; their true beauty revealed only after it has been honed by the intense heat and pressure of the Earth. This is a very painful test for the homeless of Tondo who will welcome 2016 with uncertainty and despair. But they will endure. And if you’re reading this, we can all do our part to help them. My fellow news reporter Cesar Apolinario organised a relief drive for the fire victims of Tondo to provide school supplies to the affected students. If you or someone you know can help, keep in touch with us through the comments or through the Facebook page of SubSelfie.com.

Inside the inferno aftermath.
Inside the inferno aftermath.
An eternal flame of hope. This Philippine flag remained standing and survived the fire.
An eternal flame of hope. This Philippine flag remained standing and survived the fire.

[Entry 115, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Bam Alegre.
Bam Alegre is the founder of SubSelfie.com and writes from time to time as a guest contributor. He is a News Reporter for GMA News (2012) and an Instructor for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the East (2015). He was also part of the team that won GMA News the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for the news coverage of super typhoon Yolanda (2013). Previously, he worked behind the scenes as a Segment Producer for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho and 24 Oras (2009-2012). He is also the vocalist, pianist and guitarist of the band No Parking (2005). BA Broadcast Communication 2007, UP Diliman. Read more of his articles here.

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