Lest We Forget: Pinatubo Eruption Remembered After 30 Years

Thirty years ago today, the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century took place. What once was only a fearful thought of a worst-case scenario came into being, and with it – tragedy. It has been a long time but the memories remain in the minds of the people who lived to tell the tale.


It was a time when there was still no easy access to the Internet, no connections to other data sets or scientists other than by telephone, and no sophisticated equipment that could help with the detection of activities beneath Mt. Pinatubo. Early suspicions came from Catholic nuns living near the volcano in July 1990, when a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck about 100 kilometers northeast of Pinatubo. The nuns saw steam billowing from the ground and felt small earthquakes near the volcano.


Photo courtesy of Robby Tantingco


Together with some members of an Aeta tribe, the nuns traveled to Manila to communicate their observations to volcanologist Dr. Ray Punongbayan, then the director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS). Punongbayan relayed these observations to his friend, Dr. Chris Newhall, also a volcanologist then with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). But Newhall couldn’t be sure that these signs would escalate to an eruption.


Although it grew quiet after its July 1990 outburst, the volcanic unrest began again in April of 1991, with a series of small steam explosions. Volcanologists are first to admit that forecasting what a volcano would do next is always a challenge. In late May, the number of seismic events under the volcano fluctuated from day to day. Trends in rate and character of seismicity, earthquake hypocenter locations, or other measured parameters were not conclusive in forecasting an eruption.


Beginning June 6, a swarm of progressively shallower volcano-tectonic earthquakes accompanied by inflationary tilt (the “puffing up” of the volcano) on the upper east flank of the mountain, culminated in the extrusion of a small lava dome, and continuous low-level ash emission. On June 7, the first magma came out of the ground, but the flow was only a trickle and it was not explosive. Early June 10, in the face of a growing dome, increasing ash emission, and worrisome seismicity, 15,000 nonessential personnel and dependents were evacuated by road from Clark to Subic Bay. By then, almost all aircraft had been removed from Clark and local residents had evacuated.


Photo courtesy of Robby Tantingco


Then, on June 12, Philippines Independence Day, Pinatubo began releasing its payload. The volcano’s first spectacular eruption sent an ash column 19 kilometers into the air. Additional explosions occurred overnight and the morning of June 13. When even more highly gas-charged magma reached Pinatubo's surface on June 15, the volcano exploded. Huge avalanches of searing hot ash, gas, and pumice fragments, called pyroclastic flows, roared down the flanks of Pinatubo, filling once-deep valleys with fresh volcanic deposits as much as 200 meters thick.


As though the huge volcanic eruption was not enough, Typhoon Diding moved ashore at the same time with rain and high winds. It resulted in ashfall being brought not only to areas that expected it, but also many areas (including Manila and Subic Bay) that did not. Most of the deaths (more than 840 people) and injuries from the eruption were from the collapse of roofs under wet heavy ash. Many of these roof failures would not have occurred if there had been no typhoon.


Photo courtesy of Robby Tantingco


PINATUBO MEMORIES


The memories of the many events that unfolded during this calamity remain fresh and painful for many people. Levy Laus, the late president of Corporate Guarantee and Insurance Company based in Pampanga, shared his recollection of this event before his death in 2019. Many evacuees took shelter in his gasoline station and they took out his hose to help motorists with their wipers. His people had reported that three of his buildings collapsed (Carworld Dau branch, Tire City and Megamotors) so he drove to Dau to check the damage.


"The ashfall was so thick and the headlights of cars could not penetrate the darkness. He heard the rumbling sound at the bridge over Abacan River at the North Luzon Expressway but didn’t know what it was because it was so dark. He was going to go back from Dau but someone stopped the car at the same bridge and warned him against proceeding. The vehicle in front of him went ahead and the Abacan River washed away the bridge with that vehicle on it and several more. “Had I been a little reckless I would have suffered the same fate,” said Laus. He later learned that the vehicle that went down into the Abacan River had a doctor and his entire family in it and that they all perished.


Photo courtesy of Robby Tantingco


Diosdado “Deng” Pangilinan was with fellow journalists when the first eruption happened on June 12. They were young and reckless and enthusiastic for a potential scoop so they decided to stay despite the danger and fear. They began to get more scared when it got dark and started raining because the water was warm and dirty. The hot pyroclastic materials that the morning’s eruption had deposited on the slopes were being remobilized by the rain and flooded the riverbed where they were. Their jeep had barely reached the higher ground when the first of Pinatubo's lahar carrying boulders and fallen logs swept everything in its path. In the morning, the river was still swollen, so they abandoned the jeep and crossed the waist-deep water. Then Pinatubo erupted again and to their horror, the eruption cloud was rapidly heading towards them. They were certain they would be suffocated by the ashfall but miraculously, the wind blew the ash cloud in the opposite direction, towards Zambales.


Guy “Indra” Hilbero, a former Mabalacat tourism officer, shared that when media reported that thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Kapampangans had started to abandon their homes on June 15 in an exodus to nowhere, Metro-Manila mayors took pity and sent buses to pick them up. There were no policemen around, no barangay or town officials to direct the people to the buses. The group he was in, Kabataang Bagong Silang, divided the buses into north-bound and south-bound and guided the people to them accordingly. He had heard from a couple in search of gasoline for their jeep that the chapel in barangay Lakandula in Dau had collapsed, pinning several people to death. He went there and saw bodies in the rubble. A few were still alive, so he took them to the nearest hospital.


Photo courtesy of Robby Tantingco


According to a Protestant pastor, during the climactic eruption on June 15, a group of Aetas perished because they could not read the signboards on the trucks and buses that had been sent to evacuate them. A few days before the eruption, a convoy of trucks and buses came to pick up Aetas from their villages. Since they could not read, they didn’t know which vehicle to board so they boarded vehicles at random and were ordered to go down and look for the vehicles assigned to them. They were eventually left behind so they decided to just return to the mountain and seek refuge in a cave saying that their god Apu Namalyari would spare them. A Korean pastor went to them and tried convincing them to evacuate and they agreed to leave the next morning. They spent the night in the cave, on the eve of Pinatubo’s cataclysmic eruption. Tragically, pyroclastic flows buried them while they slept inside the cave.


Cecile Yumul of DZFA shared they had advised listeners to stay home and clean their roofs to prevent them from collapsing. When they hea