May 2001

Tuesday evening we were sitting in the pension house patio when one of the staff pointed up at a thin spiral of smoke to the south. I took a quick look, then grabbed my camera, locked my room and started walking.

Within a minute of setting out the plume got much bigger. Soon I was on Urgello Street joining a surging crowd, many like me flocking towards the fire to gawk, but others heading the other way with arms piled high with clothes and possessions.

Another minute and I was at the fire itself, a raging inferno. The first fire trucks had arrived and were pulling hose, hooking up to the few available hydrants, while residents frantically pulled bags of clothes, furniture, electric fans, large crucifixes, and even washing machines and refrigerators into the street to save what they could. Everybody seemed to be running in circles; a very chaotic scene. I tried to help somebody with their things but they were so excited and there was so much going on that it seemed dangerous to help, so I decided to just watch.

The barangay (neighborhood) is named Sambag I, and like most here consists of one, two and three story buildings, most with cinder block walls, coconut wood framing and rafters, and galvanized metal roofs. The area is close to Southwestern University and contained mostly boarding houses, private residences, small eateries and internet cafes. Like most urban Filipino areas I've seen, there are only a few streets but many narrow alleyways which lead into a dense matrix of buildings and shanties. Not really great access for fire trucks.

The fire was heading directly towards the street where about 100 of us were standing. The buildings nearest the street were still untouched, and firemen in the alley sprayed water up at the burning buildings behind. I noticed the two fire trucks had several large ladders, but the firemen didn't deploy them and only sprayed from the ground. Within a minute the fire blasted to the edge of the street and we all ran to escape the intense heat and obvious danger. One lone fireman managed a hose single-handed, braving the heat as he doused buildings across the street to try to keep the fire from crossing. Inexplicably, his fellow firemen just watched from a safe distance.

Up the street I noticed people streaming out of the alleys, so I headed in myself. In one place with no firemen or fire trucks, people furiously filled buckets from a well using a hand pump, then the bucket brigade crew carried them 50 yards to throw the water up at the burning buildings. The flames were close, the heat intense and people were still running into burning buildings to rescue belongings.

I started wandering the alleys around the perimeter of the fire, and discovered that it covered a huge area of many acres: for sure the biggest urban fire I've ever seen. A vantage place to the west let me see that it had stopped pushing towards where I stood, but appeared to be burning out of control to the east.

Wandering back to where I'd first started, miraculously the fire hadn't crossed the street, and was already burning itself out. Exhausted firemen said all the tanker trucks had run out of water and the hydrants were no longer working, so there wasn't much to do at this point.

I headed home through streets choked with blocked vehicles, curiosity seekers, and burned-out residents sitting by piles of rescued belongings. People seemed both agitated and exhausted. Arriving at my pension house, the staff had assembled a big pile of luggage, cardboard boxes of cookware and bags of rice in the courtyard, in anticipation of the order to evacuate. I grabbed my laptop and some clothes and joined the group at the front gate. Fortunately, a few minutes later the radio announced that the fire had been contained.

Next day the paper reported that 2,500 residents were homeless, with about 500 buildings affected. The city opened up three places as evacuation centers to house the newly homeless. Two charred bodies were discovered in the fire ruins. Nobody is sure what caused the fire, but it may have been sparked by faulty wiring (a look at the typical wiring here supports that theory.)

Walking through the fire zone on a blazing hot Friday three days later it looked like a combination nuclear war zone and beehive of human activity. Hundreds of people picked through charred remains for usable possessions, salvagers piled up burned metal to sell, and others were putting up tarps over the rubble so they could stay at what was left of their homes. Water was running again., and a big group was taking showers in the street from a spewing water pipe.

Ten days later I'm back again taking pictures and talking to survivors. One family is living under a tarp, and are busily washing and cooking when I walk by. They say the city let them stay at the sports center for a while, and they got a bag of rice from a local politician, but otherwise they're on their own. They pretty much lost everything, but now are smiling and laughing, and someone says "Sure, take our picture!" My friend Michelle says they'll just live here like this until someone in the family makes a little money and can start rebuilding the house. Of course, life goes on; this is the Philippines.

See my photos of the fire zone: FirePhotos
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