Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Looking Back

Mata, the lone survivor

When I heard the news that veteran journalist Nestor Mata passed away two weeks ago at 92, I couldn’t believe it because he had always seemed, in my eyes at least, invincible and immortal. Mata’s claim to fame, after all, was that he was the lone survivor of the 1957 plane crash that killed Ramon Magsaysay, perhaps the most popular and well-loved president the Philippines has ever had.

I first met Mata in the 1980s when I hung out at the Heritage Art Center in a shady cul de sac known as Lantana Street in Cubao, Quezon City. The gallery was a ramshackle assortment of two or three houses kept together by antique parts from older houses bought by the owner, Mario Alcantara, from scavengers and others he referred to as “mambubulok” like himself. I was to learn much later that one of the houses was owned or lived in by the now legendary Lyd Arguilla, founder of the Philippine Art Gallery that in the 1950s sold paintings which now command millions of pesos at auction. Had I been more inquisitive, I could have sifted through the filing cabinets in a bodega that held not just the PAG files but also sketches by and letters from H.R. Ocampo, Fernando Zobel, Vicente Manansala, Arturo Luz, Romeo Tabuena and other darlings of today’s smart collecting set.

I was a college student at the time; almost daily after class I went to the gallery where I completed assignments and readings at a second-floor balcony that nobody ever seemed to visit. When I went down for merienda later in the afternoon, the gallery café would be lively with conversation and chess. Odette Alcantara held court there, and her loyal knights aside from Mata included Onib Olmedo and other artists and writers who dropped in to chat.

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So that café hosted Ocampo, Manansala, Cesar Legaspi, and many more who did not become rich or famous. Mata held court there, too, smoking a pipe like a chimney as he pontificated on the political scene. In light moments he would be coaxed to sing German lieder or an Italian aria, and I sat in a corner observing this walking historical relic.

What Mata lacked in height he made up for with his booming voice and a distinct laugh that someone in the coterie wickedly explained away by saying the plane crash had left Mata burned in unmentionable places of his body. I never found the nerve to ask him about the crash, or to confirm that the reason he survived was his refusal to put on his seatbelt, as everyone dutifully did that fateful night when the “Fasten your seatbelt” sign flashed in the plane named Pinatubo. Mata was probably so tired of repeating the story of his escape from death that he wrote “One Came Back: The Magsaysay Tragedy” (1957). The book contained what he knew before, during and after the crash.

Pinoys like to look back on omens and signs, and there were two recorded by Mata. The first involved an unnamed Air Force man who was reading out the names on the manifest and realized that the President was the 13th passenger. Someone blurted out, “Aba! Malas yong numero trece,” so a Malacañang staffer stepped up to Magsaysay and said: “Mr. President, I will be No. 13.” The President ordered the person to stay in Cebu and boarded as the 13th passenger on the list. The second involved two dreams of Soledad Paredes, sister of Jess, who was one of the ill-fated passengers. In one dream she saw the plane burst into flames, followed by a newsboy shouting that the President was dead: “Patay si Magsaysay!” Paredes woke up, looked at her bedside clock, and noted that it was 1:30 a.m. of Sunday, March 17, 1957. She went back to sleep and had another bad dream: A plane had landed and no passengers emerged, only boxes and suitcases.

“Then, sharply, suddenly,” Mata wrote, “like a thousand lights blinking out at the same time, like a jolting fall on a bottomless pit, it happened…” His reportage, like the sorry wreckage of the plane, is a jumbled mass of adjectives that fail to describe the horrible split-second that separated life from death. He was thrown out of the plane in the blinding explosion and the deafening boom that came after it. When he regained consciousness he felt it was but a nightmare, until he grasped reality and checked his watch: It was a few minutes past 3 a.m.

Mata is gone but the story of the tragedy remains and the reason for it: Whether engine fatigue or sabotage, it will haunt history for a long time.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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