Wait, before reading this post, please visit first part here: 9/16/1972 Live Blogging at the Colgante Bridge
LONG AGO, TODAY, 39 YEARS AND 2 DAYS, TO BE EXACT.
Sunday, September 17, 1972. At a distance, yesterday, the Colgante bridge looked beautiful, with colorful buntings and lighted with different colored bulbs. As the day’s sun descended, the bridge’s silhuette on the Naga river provided a lovely backdrop for the still unfolding culmination of the Peñafrancia religious festivities. Colgante bridge connects the streets of Dayangdang and Peñafrancia avenue onward to Elias Angeles street. It was the tableau of sights and sounds.
The Colgante, a 15-year-old structure of steel girders and wood planks, groaned under the weight of between 500 to 1,000 (nobody had a good and exact count) faithful on its belly. The faithful, the enthusiasts and the visitors, all jostled for a better view of the fluvial scenario 40 feet below, including Mila Obias and Sal Orbon of radio stations DZGE-DWEB.
Previously, the bridge was closed to large vehicular traffic much weakened last June by a typhoon.
There were countless small riverboats tugging the “vancuerna” carrying the images of the Virgin of Peñafrancia and the Divino Rostro. Also on board the watercraft were priests, lay ministers, male guests and the chief of police of the city, among others..
Long, flowing, haired Mila was on air that time, she was on the top of her form describing how people on the bridge jostled for a view. She was envoking listeners to give thanks to the Patroness of Bicol for the many blessings received. Her mother, Emerita, would recount later how she felt very proud of her daughter while monitoring the radio report at home. Little did they know it was the last phrase Mila would utter as the view of the vancuerna emerges on the other side of the bridge.
A few meters after the barge passed under the bridge, a loud cracking boom sounded emanating from the bridge. Few seconds later, the swaying Colgante bridge disintegrated bringing with it the people who were caught astonished, shocked and fearful. Over DZGE, the walkie-talkie links of Mila and Sal crackled, were cut-off the air and then went silent.
On board the announcer’s booth, Nora and Larry who were taking turns on the simultaneous broadcast of the sister stations, called for the technician to switch to another waiting reporter on line.
Big shards, pieces and planks of wood and steel fell on the boat and boatmen taggging along the vancuerna. People from the falling bridge fell on top of the river boats and the boatmen, too.
Children, men and women, found themselves floating and mixed with the bridge debris. They fought for their lives, clawed at one another, the abled ones pulled themselves to either side of the riverbanks. Devotees who were on the banks helped grab survivors and fished out bodies.
Many of the countless and nameless people died. Some died immediately upon hitting the murky waters of the Naga river struck by bodies, debris and crushed on boats beneath. Others have drowned under the weight of the debris. Many more died thru electrocution. The electric wires that hang and lighted the colorful light bulbs caused the death. Bodies fished out of the river suffered electrical burns.
There was total pandemonium on the site. There was wailing, crying and shouting!
The fluvial procession was stopped immediately and the images and the unharmed people aboard the barge disembarked on the muddy riverbanks, then walked the street towards the Peñafrancia shrine via Dayangdang. There was no merry, roucous chanting of “Viva La Virgen!!” or “Viva El Divino Rostro!!!” Only somber mood, shocked and many were crying.
The nearby Naga Cathedral, San Francisco and the Penafrancia shrine almost simultaneously started its church bells to ring. Joined by a few of Naga city’s police cars on the scene with wailing sirens, the death tolls consumed an eerie night summarily closing the once joyful fluvial festivities turned deadly.
Where radio stations fielded reporters to cover the fluvial, this time the attention was turned to broadcasting the unfolding rescue at the river. Notifying unknown relatives of the unknown victims. The province and the city was so ill-prepared and ill-equipped. There was no equipment to mount a rescue and retrieval operation. No city or provincial personnel was trained or available to lead one, either.
Former senator Edmundo B. Cea, owner of the broadcast network, instructed Fortuno to send a team to Colgante, primarily to locate for Mila and Sal Orbon.
Orbon later would emerge from the waters with bruises and recount the ordeal. He lost tract of his partner Mila when the bridge went down.
Nora recounted: “Larry and I went to the Camarines Sur provincial hospital, the Mother Seton and St. John looking for an injured Mila. Looking for her, we met dead bodies lined up on the alleyways of the hospitals, all covered with white cloths. There was pandemonium, very noisy, many people, maybe relatives or friends, crying out loud for their lost or dead loved ones.
My Colegio (de Sta. Isabel) co-teacher, Miss Carmen Lee was one of the body on the alley. Before noon, she refused to go with us for lunch and opted to watch the fluvial at the bridge. She was an adopted daughter of the sisters (nuns). When she was a baby, she was left at the doorstep of the school (maybe by her mother) where nuns found her, educated her at the Colegio where she graduated and find employment as a teacher. It seemed that many residential houses in Bagumbayan have lost a member of the family, very sad.”
Later, a team of Philippine navy frogmen arrived and helped scoured the wreckage area, diving countless many times for bodies that were pinned down the bottom of the river by heavy debris. One of the bodies the frogmen found was that of Mila. She had a big bruise on her head.
Witnesses said that people around the area continued their rescue and recovery operation together with the frogmen until they almost run out of their breaths. They were totally exhausted.
Many of the recovered bodies were lined up on the paved streets surrounding the disaster area, the unclaimed were wrapped or covered in newspapers or brown kraft papers. Later, bodies were placed in improvised rough, unsanded wooden boxes.
Nora: “We went to Del Carmen, Calabanga later. Mila’s remains was already there, her long flowing hair was still dripping with river water. FBN donated a green-colored coffin and an unspecified amount of financial aid. (Later in the week, she was brought to her final resting place at the Catholic cemetery in San Isidro, Calabanga.)”
The retrieval operation continued until the early morning hours today, Sunday, September 17, 1972, the actual feast day and Peñafrancia fiesta.
Please don’t miss the first part here:
9/16/1972 Live Blogging at the Colgante Bridge
To be continued.