“People donít seem to recall that fateful day anymore.”
Tourists who flock to Baguio nowadays can only see the many multi-story buildings being constructed all over the city. But 31 years ago, not too many people believed that the city could rise again from the devastation brought by the 7.7 magnitude earthquake on July 16, 1990. That earthquake killed about 1,900 people in Baguio and nearby provinces and injured thousands more.
As a result, many packed their belongings and relocated somewhere else. Many also sold their properties and people with a lot of cash were able to buy real estate properties well below prevailing market prices.
Today things are entirely different. There is construction everywhere that the city seems to be running out of space to build. When the earthquake struck, I was about three months into my tour as provincial commander of Benguet which at that time included Baguio City. After spending a stressful year in the province of Kalinga-Apayao also as the provincial commander, I thought that Benguet would be a rest and recreation assignment. I was mistaken. Little did I realize that the next several months would be the busiest of my entire government service. The search and rescue, the recovery, and reconstruction kept everyone on their toes.
For the first time, I witnessed an entire city population go into some kind of a shock. People were numb and scared. The first order of business therefore was to get the city back to some semblance of normality like collecting garbage, cleaning the streets and opening commercial establishments. The earthquake struck in the early afternoon and lasted for about 56 seconds. Scores of buildings were toppled. The Hyatt Hotel along south drive which was one of the biggest was completely destroyed, taking many lives. This was the same with the Nevada Hotel at the old entrance of Camp John Hay. Another Hotel was also toppled along Harrison Road together with the multi-story building at Hilltop. That building did not initially go down but did after a strong aftershock whose magnitude was 6.3.
Buildings also went down at the Loakan export processing zone. The destruction was not limited to commercial buildings as residential houses were also destroyed. All the roads leading to Baguio were initially closed. Naguilian was the first to be opened followed by Marcos highway a couple of weeks later. Kennon Road remained closed for months due to major landslides that buried dozens of people. The first foreign rescue volunteers to arrive were the 13th United States Air Force personnel from Clark followed by the British and Japanese. The 13th Air Force personnel were coincidentally conducting an Inspector General inspection in John Hay and were directed to make an initial assessment of the damages.
They came to me for coordination and assistance and as a result, I was designated as the point man between the Philippine and US Government efforts. In less than 24 hours, scores of US helicopters were made available for search and rescue not only in Baguio-Benguet but throughout the Cordillera Administrative Region. These helicopters were also used to bring needed supplies to isolated communities and evacuate the wounded. Transport planes were also made available to evacuate nonresidents and seriously wounded people to Manila for treatment. President Cory Aquino who was the President at that time came for inspection on the third day. Everybody scrambled to go meet her at the airport. Since I was going to brief her at the Mansion House, I did not go. When she arrived, I was the first to meet her when she stepped out of her vehicle and suggested that the briefing be outside the building due to the constant strong aftershocks. After the briefing, she gave instructions to all the cabinet members and other senior government officials who were there. Everyone, including myself, was given their marching orders.
She then took me aside and requested that I go check what happened to their houses. I was able to comply the following day and reported to her that there were no damages. The hardest part of the search and rescue was dealing with grieving relatives of those who died. The Hyatt Hotel was an example. After finding the last survivor after about 17 days, explaining to family members that the search and rescue could not go on forever was heart-wrenching. Yet, for all the hard work, there were moments of satisfaction when we were able to help some families.
Unlike the first few years after the earthquake when there was a lot of doubt whether the city could get back on its feet, Baguio is again thriving economically. But people don’t seem to remember that fateful day. The city does not even commemorate it at all. The tragedy seems so distant.