Remembering the 1976 Earthquake and Tsunami That Devastated My City

Melody SJAL on Oct 18, 2008

My family’s experiences during the worst tragedy that has ever befallen my hometown, the city of Pagadian. At around 12:11 AM of August 17, 1976, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the Moro Gulf and had triggered a series of tsunamis in many parts of Mindanao including our city, claiming thousands of lives. My siblings and I were all born and raised in Pagadian City, the capital of Zamboanga del Sur which is a province in Mindanao, the southern part of the Philippines. The year was 1976. I was in third grade and 3 months short of my 8th birthday. We were then residing on Jamisola Extension, Santa Lucia District, and the biggest among the 11 coastal districts dotting the city.

Let me start my story on August 16, 1976, a Monday. Everything was normal. An elder brother, an elder sister, and I all went to the same public grade school, the Santa Lucia Central Elementary School. At that time, part of our school’s surrounding areas was covered with mangroves and swamps; although when you visit the place now, you could no longer see traces of those muddy places. We all went to school that Monday – my eldest brother to a private high school in a non-coastal district, and the three of us to the Santa Lucia Central Elementary School. Nothing peculiar happened and we all went home safely. A Night of Gaiety Televisions were then almost unknown in our district so bedtime was as early as 8 PM. But we couldn’t sleep because a small purok (village) named Pagatpat (the local name for the mangrove tree Avicennia) was having a local dance in celebration of the feast of their patron saint. Purok Pagatpat was a swampy place very near the sea and located just behind one of our school buildings. Although our house then was situated about two hundred meters from our school, the music from the festive village wafted off to our place that we were complaining of being unable to sleep and wishing that the festivity would soon be over. Finally when it was almost midnight, our wish was granted and everything was quiet. The Earthquake Then at 12:11 in the morning of Aug. 17, 1976, just a few minutes after the festivity came to a stop, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake awakened us again. The quake which had a tectonic origin in the Cotabato trench off the Moro Gulf shook the western and northern provinces of Mindanao. All of us huddled together in our living room and my mother told us to wrap our bodies with blankets as the night was cold due to a light rain falling outside. My father and eldest brother were trying to prevent the tall wooden cabinet from falling on us. A few minutes later we heard siren shots which my parents initially took to be signs of terrorist attacks, as the 70’s also marked a period of political unrest in many parts of Mindanao. Run! Water! The Sea! Around 20 to 30 minutes after the tremendous earthquake, a neighbor shouted to my father, “Run! Water! The sea!” my father shouted back asking for clarification, but nobody answered him anymore. So my mother said we had to run too if people were already fleeing, thinking that our city was under siege.

My father took my four-year old sister; my mom carried my two-month-old youngest sister; I was assigned to my twelve-year-old eldest brother; and my eleven-year-old brother and ten-year-old sister were told to stick together. Then we all went down passing under our house because my parents were still convinced that we were being attacked by rebels. It was common in our city before to build a house whose flooring was a few feet above the ground due to frequent high tides or floods from the nearby sea and river. The space between the ground and our floor, silong in the local dialect, was about four feet. The Exodus Our place then didn’t have the wide concrete roads which are now prevalent even in the coastal districts. Jamisola Extension then was but a narrow unpaved path which became flooded with people on that fateful night. When we reached the path, all of us were immediately swallowed up by the deluge of people all running for their lives; and we were separated from each other. Shots were still fired and I was fascinated by the bullet flashes across the sky and kept asking my brother what those lights were. But my brother just told me to stay quiet and keep on running. Just imagine the scene from the movie “Deep Impact” where people went up the hill to flee the rushing water. Although we couldn’t see any water and didn’t really understand why we were running, voices were heard saying that the sea had risen, making us all the more confused. Tsunamis were then unknown to many people in our place, especially for a third grader like me. Throughout the exodus, my mother’s shouts could be heard too calling her children one by one as if calling the roll; and each of us would answer back when our respective names were called. Then we reached the highway which was quite elevated and already flooded with people. My mother called the roll once again; and thank God, each of us was safe. My parents tried to talk with other people to find out what was really happening, and they were told about the rising of the sea which all sounded nonsense to my young mind. I was thinking of high tide and it was no big deal to me, as we often experience it at school. Even my parents couldn’t really understand as well, and I was still unsure why we left the house so frantically. Then around 4 to 5 in the morning, my parents decided that it’s time for us to go back to the house. My parents, like most of the people who left their homes in frenzy, were anxious for leaving our house open. Actually their main concern then was the possibility of thieves entering our house, as we had no idea of the devastation that had transpired during our escape. Many people decided to go home too. So we went on another exodus that morning of Aug. 17, 1976. This time though, in a more relaxed pace, but with a sense of anxiety, fatigue and drowsiness.

The Devastation But nothing could have prepared us for what lay before us upon arriving at our place. The scenes and the events of that fateful early morning would forever stay in my memory. When we came to our place which belongs to the lowest ground level of the city’s mountainous terrain, we found ourselves wading through knee-deep muddy water (thigh-high for me then). It was as if our place had become a swamp dotted with numerous houses all around. Fish were even hopping under and around our house – a fact I so enjoyed then unknowing yet of the catastrophe that we had just escaped. Good thing that the floor of our house was about four feet above the ground so the water did not reach it. The house posts indicated that the maximum water level at our place was but less than a foot below our floor. Although all of us were safe, our dog had lost all her nursing puppies as they were left on their makeshift kennel on the ground. She herself was spared, as she was on the porch when we got home. Maybe she went upstairs and lay on the porch when it started to drizzle, as she usually did; and when the water came, she had no choice but to stay on the porch. Then my father decided to look and to ask around for some information as to what happened that night. My eldest brother went with him too. And when they came back, they were filled with disbelief as they narrated to us what they learned. We were all stunned when they told us that a lot of people perished while we were running for safety the previous night. My father said that there had been a series of tidal waves that rose from the sea and that dead people littered our surroundings. According to him, most of our neighbors’ yards harbored dead bodies of both animals and people. He further said that our school building was pushed off the ground and that our school plaza was littered with small boats and houses that were displaced by the tidal waves. Around 7 in the morning, muddy water was still all over our place. My father found a wooden chest stuck in our yard; and when we opened it, it contained baby clothes. At least I had not seen a dead body in our yard. The Aftermath Ever since we got back to our home, and throughout the day, our city further experienced several aftershocks which alarmed and terrified us all. With every little quake, people were frightened that another tsunami might occur. Bodies had been recovered from many parts of the city. Good thing we had very few distant relatives in the city as both my parents come from different provinces, so we were spared from the agony of losing any relatives in the disaster. All the dead bodies were brought to the city plaza for families to identify and claim.

Almost everyday we got news that an acquaintance of ours had either perished or lost a child, a sibling, a parent, or a relative. My sister’s best friend and classmate died in the tragedy. They lived in Purok Pagatpat whose festivity ended just minutes before the tremendous earthquake occurred. Their family lost six members in all including a baby. After a few days, the wooden chest we found was claimed by a young couple who said that their baby was found dead floating in the river nearby. A classmate of mine was swept to the sea, but when the water washed to the shore again, she was able to hold on with all her might to a large rock that she wasn’t swept again when the sea receded. And she ran quickly to safety when the water ebbed away. Since our school was destroyed, we had no class for several days. And after about a couple of weeks, our class met at the residence of our adviser. We held classes on their front yard for several weeks. Also, to make sure that we would be safe should another tsunami occur, my older sister and I would go to a distant relative’s house located on the city’s upper district before sunset and stay overnight at their place. That went on for several weeks until such time that my parents believed it safe for us to spend the night at home with our family. According to the Office of Civil Defense, the number of people who died in Zamboanga del Sur, our province, was 1,440. There were 7,701 who were injured, and 909 were reported missing and were thought to be drowned at sea. And the number of people who were left homeless reached 49,848. Our city had sustained the greatest number of casualties, the majority of which came from Santa Lucia, our very own district as it was the biggest and the most populous among the 11 coastal districts of the city… But it was believed that the total death toll in all the devastated Mindanao provinces and cities reached up to 8,000 people. The earthquake that happened in 1976 in Pagadian City was the strongest earthquake the city has ever experienced; and the five recorded tsunamis and a series of large waves triggered by the quake was considered to be the worst of its kind throughout the Philippines to date. This calamity was also included in the historic earthquakes and tsunamis all over the world. (Melody SJAL on Oct 18, 2008)
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