Millions defy terror alert
The crowd seems to get bigger and bolder each year. But as Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle explained: “To understand it, you need to be a devotee. Outsiders do not understand.”
No barrier, no threat to life and limb, not even a terror alert raised by Malacañang could stem the crushing tide of devotees who jammed the streets in adoration of the iconic Black Nazarene of Quiapo, whose traditional procession on Monday was one of the biggest, longest and most guarded in memory.
The procession was already on its 13th hour as of 9 p.m. Monday night, with authorities expecting it to be over well past midnight.
Before Tagle could even give his final blessing during a Mass held at Quirino Grandstand in Manila, barefoot men and women made a mad dash to the stage and toppled security railings to be among the first to touch the image.
Scores were already hurt in this initial commotion before marshals were able to move the image to a carriage for the procession.
Police estimated up to 8 million people crammed into the historic quarters of Manila seeking to touch the centuries-old and life-size icon of Jesus Christ that is believed to hold miraculous powers.
The human sea of Catholic pilgrims once again flooded the capital in a show of religious frenzy, despite warnings that Islamic militants may be planning to bomb the spectacular annual event.
Many among the heaving, roaring crowd risked injury by clambering over others in a bid to touch the icon and win its healing favor, while most people traipsed through the dirty streets barefoot as a sign of devotion.
Millions of devotees are attracted to the event every year, more so this year even after President Benigno Aquino III warned on Sunday that authorities had uncovered a plot to attack the event, potentially with a mobile phone-triggered bomb.
Test of faith
Maximo Graciano, a 44-year-old warehouseman and a Black Nazarene procession participant for the past 15 years, said the terrorism warning was not enough to keep him away.
“If we allow ourselves to be cowed by terrorism, it means we do not really believe in Him,” said Graciano, who insisted the icon had helped him regain the full use of his right arm after it was severely injured in a car accident.
“We are not worried (about a terrorist attack) because we have faith in Him. We are under His protection,” said Winifreda Bustamante, a 42-year-old dressmaker who had named her daughter Nazarena in gratitude to the Black Nazarene.
“We’re in His hands. If it’s our time to die, then that’s it. People die even in their sleep, but since we are here, we might as well join the procession,” said Danilo Santos, 59, an electrician who had been attending the procession since he was in the fourth grade.
“I’ve noticed that there are a lot more people now despite the news (of an alleged bomb threat),” Santos added.
“For as long as I can walk or crawl, I will join the procession. That is my vow,” 47-year-old Ruby Pacardo said after rubbing her grandson’s shirt on the icon, hoping it would help him overcome cataract problems and regain his full vision.
“Maybe the President himself announced it so we would be more vigilant and careful. But we will not be stopped,” said Jude Secong, 30, of Pasay City.
“We are devotees and we are prepared for anything,” added Eric Estabaya, 32.
The predominantly male and maroon-shirted pilgrims struggled to touch the image as it inched its way from Quirino Grandstand down its traditional route leading to Quiapo Church.
The more determined devotees jostled to get hold of the rope pulling the carriage, while others formed a handkerchief-waving mass around the image hailed as “Señor Nazareno.”
The usual chants of “Viva! Viva!” occasionally became “Bawas! Bawas! (Out of the way)” as some devotees grew impatient and asked those who had already touched the image or had their towels dabbed on the statue to make way for the thousands still awaiting their turn.
But instead of a terrorist attack, a mechanical problem marred the procession—delaying it by several hours—when the carriage bearing the image was stalled because the wheels broke.
At first, two wheels got unhinged as the carriage was approaching P. Burgos Street, near Manila Hotel, after leaving Quirino Grandstand at around 8 a.m. Nine hours later, the marshals reported that all eight wheels had been damaged as the carriage moved past Manila City Hall.
“We can’t do it anymore! All the wheels are gone!” one marshal yelled from atop the carriage.
One of the three thick ropes pulling the carriage also snapped, the Philippine Daily Inquirer learned.
“Last year, the carriage was already at Feati University at around 1 p.m. Now, it’s nearly 6 p.m. and we’re not yet there. Nahihirapan si Señor (It’s becoming difficult for our Lord),” said a devotee named Bong, who came all the way from Bulacan province.
At one point, authorities tried to send a fire truck to replace the stalled carriage, but the devotees blocked its path and even pounded the sides of the vehicle with their hands in protest. “Walang lilipat! (There won’t be a transfer),” they shouted.
The devotees managed to resume the procession by lifting the carriage off the ground.
Asked how he felt about the pilgrims becoming uncontrollable and ignoring even the appeals coming from priests, Archbishop Tagle simply said: “To understand it, you need to be a
devotee. Outsiders do not understand.”
For Tagle, the faith-fueled rush could be considered an act of “approaching the divine.”
In his homily, Tagle called on the faithful to shun the “worldly spirit” and the “spirit of the flesh” so they could stand up as a nation after a fall—the way the Black Nazarene did on his way to his crucifixion.
“We know that Jesus carried a heavy cross due to our sins but He was able to rise because of the Holy Spirit,” the archbishop said at the Mass, his first time to address a mammoth crowd as head of the country’s premier diocese.
He said Filipinos continued to be pulled down by the sins of the world such as adultery, hatred and the worship of false gods like money, power, fame and vanity.
“We are always falling down because we always look at ourselves… (and) fail to look at God,” he said.
At one point, Tagle drew laughter from the pilgrims when he noted how Filipinos had supposedly become obsessed with physical beauty.
“Papaya is for tinola (a chicken dish). You are human, not chicken. Why are you acting like a chicken?” he said, alluding to the popular use of papaya soap as skin whitener.
Tagle also cited alcoholism and drug abuse among the “sins of the flesh” that had been causing the breakdown of Filipino families. He also warned against sexual promiscuity and attaching too much value to material possessions.
At the end of his sermon, the archbishop asked the multitudes to pick the trash around them before leaving the grandstand and give the marshals enough time to place the Black Nazarene on the carriage. These two requests, however, went largely unheeded.
As of 4 p.m., the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) said its first-aid and paramedic teams had attended to 206 devotees who suffered minor injuries or fell ill during the procession.
PRC secretary general Gwendolyn Pang said 78 devotees were treated mostly for foot injuries. Others were treated for dizzy spells, chest pains, dehydration and abnormal blood pressure. The more serious cases were rushed to Ospital ng Maynila, Philippine General Hospital (PGH) and University of Santo Tomas Hospital.
Among them was a man who apparently dislocated his elbow and a pregnant woman who complained of dizziness. A Japanese national, Katsumi Tanaka, was treated at PGH for foot injuries.
A man in his 20s broke his neck in a bad fall while still at Quirino Grandstand and was rushed to a hospital.
The PRC also had four rubber boats on standby among the emergency vehicles it prepared for the massive procession. With reports from AFP; Jerome Aning, Jaymee Gamil, PDI; Radyo Inquirer; and Matikas Santos, INQUIRER.net