OLONGAPO CITY: “It was an unusually dark afternoon and I was walking home from my work at the Ship Repair Facility of the US naval base when I noticed it started to rain, but it was not the usual rain because those were wet sands,” Henry, 57, a former employee at the former US Naval Base in Subic, vividly recalls.
He noticed that sand was accumulating so fast on the road that even with a thick raincoat, he could feel the wet sand hitting him and getting heavier.
“The corner of Magsaysay and Gordon Avenue, normally full of people at that time of the day, was empty, and a small number of people there were somewhat in a mad rush to go somewhere.
“Even the road was devoid of jeepneys and tricycles,” he said, adding that he had to walk the length of about eight blocks from the main gate of the base to his home in New Kalalake.
The power was out on the evening of June 15, 1991, and the power was out, but he managed to get home, where his wife and three very young children were waiting anxiously for him.
The first thing he noticed was the wet sand rapidly accumulating on roof of their house, and he hurriedly went up with his brother-in-law to remove the sand.
It continued to rain sand and while on the roof, they would hear quick intervals of loud thunder and saw flashes of orange-colored lightning, he recalls.
“What was more frightening was that every now and then, we heard loud thuds from around the neighborhood from a collapsed roof and followed by cries,” Henry said.
“It was a feeling like the end of the world,” he quivered.
Soon after, the earth began to rock. He secured his family to a protected place in the house until the earthquake and its aftershocks slowly faded and disappeared at almost dawn.
The sand accumulated fast everywhere, and rising to over knee-deep. Some neighbors were shouting that a tsunami might occur.
As the evacuation of residents was announced early in the morning, his family packed whatever they could and started walking through thick sand towards the Rizal Triangle Park, a far distance from his residence, to where the buses were waiting to haul them from the city.
Some 10 blue-colored Metro Manila buses where parked along the main road beside the park, and he joined hundreds of people trying to get a place inside the bus.
He said he and his family went to the house of his sister in Novaliches. The next day, he returned to Olongapo to check on their house.
A blackout enveloped the whole city, and he spent time helping clear the bases, helping the community clear the debris, and ultimately clear their house.
Henry said jobs at the ship repair facility continued after the eruption, as he and the rest of the residents of the city tried to cope with the task of rising up after the devastation.
Clearing the volcano’s debris took some time and in a few months, Henry’s family was able to reunite with him in their severely damaged house.
But hardly had progress been made in their struggle when news of the impending pullout of the US bases shocked him and the people of Olongapo.
Henry said he and his family, though fearful of their future, faced these challenges head on and decided to stay in Olongapo, while almost a third of the city’s population had already left.
He joined rallies calling for the retention of the US bases. He also joined rallies spearheaded by then city mayor Richard Gordon and his wife, the former Zambales 1st District Rep. Kate Gordon, for the creation of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
Times were hard for him during that period as the separation pay he got from the US Navy for 10 years of service was slowly running out.
Henry took odd jobs here and there to feed his family and managed to send his children to school.
He admits that the frightening experience from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption made him stronger in facing new challenges and trials.
Fast forward to 2016, the three young kids Henry evacuated during the Pinatubo eruption have now all finished college, are gainfully employed and all have own families.
Henry lost his wife to cancer in 2004 and now lives alone, expecting occasional visits from his children and grandchildren.
Forty-eight year-old Esperanza Pablo remembers clearly that day.
“I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child and we were not even aware on that morning that the volcano had already exploded,” she says from her home in Barangay New Banicain, where she and her family have lived since.
All they saw was the big mushroom-shaped cloud that formed from afar but got concerned when total darkness covered the city in the afternoon. Wet ashfall had turned into mud that they could hardly walk without slipping.
There were calls for evacuation and later in the night, they went to the Columban church, some 200 yards from their house.
She said an American friend of his brother-in-law told them that Olongapo was in danger and would be wiped out and that they had to go away. The friend gave each family US$100 US as pocket money.
She and her family went to her mother in Baguio City and stayed there for almost a month. Her husband returned to Olongapo a week after to secure what was left of their property.
Esperanza and her family braved the difficulties of starting again in a community totally devastated by nature’s fury, followed by the economic set back with the closure of the US naval base.
Her husband was forced to leave and work in Saudi Arabia.
Today, four of the five boys are completing college studies and the youngest is in second year college, Esperanza looks back to those times as a test for people’s will and determination.
The experiences of Henry and Esperanza’s family are generally similar to many other residents of Olongapo following the volcano’s eruption. Those who stayed on and faced the challenges of rebuilding from the ashes of Mt. Pinatubo have since moved on to better lives and future. Patrick Roxas