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Fires and ghosts

Media coverage of a fire usually focuses on the chaos, anguish and grief as the blaze rages. During the fire last April 1 that destroyed UP Diliman’s Bulwagang Rizal (Faculty Center), I was practically begging media people not to capitalize on people’s suffering, especially by asking the ultimate callous question, “How are you feeling?”

As a fire dies out, media people trail off. What happens afterwards—the hours, days, weeks, and longer—is apparently not as newsworthy. Yet it’s the postfire events that need the most attention. I’m sharing some of our experiences to help people understand what’s involved, and to help readers incorporate some of the lessons we’re learning into your own disaster preparedness plans.

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In a postfire scenario, the most difficult part is explaining to people why they can’t immediately enter a gutted building. There are the forensic issues, with the site becoming off-limits as investigators come in to try to determine the cause of the blaze. There are the safety concerns, especially where large, well-built structures are involved. Walls, posts, even stairs, may survive the fire and people want to rush in, unaware that the structural integrity may have been destroyed. Floors can give way, roofs can cave in.

There’s also the air pollution caused by the fire. In our case, even a neighboring building was affected by air pollution and classes could not be held there for a week.

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Even after the fire was officially declared controlled, we were warned that a new fire could start again.  Indeed, when the doors to the Faculty Center were opened shortly after the big fire had been put out, the oxygen rushing in from outside set off a new fire at the core—the famous Recto conference hall where, even at the height of martial law, people could speak freely without fear of being arrested. This time around, the venue for the most inflammatory speeches was consumed by real flames.

David and Goliath

For days, too, after the fire, there were still smoldering embers, occasionally coming alive again, a kind of huling hirit—a “last hurrah,” with flames shooting up then dying down. At the height of the fire, there were almost 50 fire trucks deployed from throughout Metro Manila. They were all gone the next day, and replacing them was a tiny makeshift fire truck from Barangay UP Diliman: little David, I’ve christened it, after the biblical tale of David and Goliath. It kept watch a few more days.

The most difficult postfire situations are those involving the psychosocial. Throughout the next weeks faculty members trooped back, accompanied by our maintenance people and with safety gear on. Most realized that there is little or nothing to retrieve.

I tell people that we have to let go and move on, but I know that’s easier said than done because Bulwagang Rizal involved so many years of our faculty’s lives, in many personal, intimate ways.

Some years ago the Institute of Chemistry, better known to many as Science Pavilion 2, burned down completely. Yet the members of the chemistry faculty do not recall too much of grief because the pavilion consisted mainly of classrooms and laboratories, rather than faculty rooms.

I did visit Science Pavilion 2 a few years after the fire in preparation for renovation. The walls were filled with graffiti. There were still chairs and laboratory equipment—for example, a centrifuge machine, now rusted, was in one corner.

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Before entering the building I playfully imagined that maybe I would see nebulous figures floating in and out of the rooms, or hearing crying or laughter. Instead, I found a very serene building, at peace with “itself.”

Sympathy, solidarity

It will be very different with Bulwagang Rizal, with literally thousands of faculty members and students nursing memories of the place, and its times. And I have to express, again, my thanks to people from all over, even non-alumni, who have helped us. Last Wednesday, UP president Alfredo Pascual and I, joined by other officials, received 200 books and videos, 30 computers and 30 printers from Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua. The Chinese Embassy offered the donation on its own, for the departments affected by the fire.

After the turnover, as the ambassador met and talked with five of our students on scholarship from the embassy, I realized how steeped he was in history and culture events and understood why he empathized so much with our loss at UP Diliman. Books are our lives.

That same afternoon, I was working when my secretary told me the Ayala Foundation had sent a van with 14 large boxes of books for some of the departments affected by the fire. This was a surprise, and therefore even more appreciated. I browsed through the long list of books and was even more touched, knowing they had been carefully selected.

I also know that the two large donations carried messages of sympathy (We’re sorry about what happened) as well as of solidarity (We want to help you move on).

Disasters are disasters because of the long-lingering effects.  After Tropical Storm “Ondoy,” one of my graduate students told his classmates and me that the floodwaters had destroyed his laptop and his thesis manuscript inside it.

But the worst losses, he said, were the photographs of family and friends.

He said a fire would have been better because all you would have are ashes, but water-logged photographs leave you hanging.

Rej Cruz, of our anthropology faculty, found in the debris metal plates that made up a precious kulintang, a musical instrument similar to a xylophone. The plates had rusted in the seven weeks or so since the fire, but he is optimistic that he can have them cleaned, and a new wooden base built. It was a kulintang he had since college days when, as an engineering major, he had been attracted to indigenous music forms and instruments—an interest largely responsible for his moving on to anthropology after graduation from engineering.

I looked at the eight rusted pieces on the floor and asked Rej to make sure to update me as he restored the kulintang. I know that after a fire, what matters is not so much what we find, or don’t find, as the way we seek closure.

We move on when we let go of the ghosts.

* * *

[email protected]

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TAGS: Bulwagang Rizal, Fire, up diliman, UP Faculty Center
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