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Ruby Tower earthquake survivors visit hallowed ground

By Jerry E. Esplanada
First Posted 06:25:00 10/30/2006

Filed Under: history, Earthquake

Published on page A1 of the October 30, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THIRTY-EIGHT years ago, the six-story Ruby Tower apartment-building on Doroteo Jose and Teodora Alonzo streets in Sta. Cruz, Manila, collapsed ?like a house of cards? during an Intensity 7 earthquake.

On that ?Black Friday,? 342 of the building?s more than 600 tenants lost their lives.

Some 270 badly injured survivors were extricated from the rubble during rescue efforts that lasted more than a week and involved at least 6,000 volunteers. Twenty-seven among the injured later died. An undisclosed number of tenants, mostly Chinese-Filipinos, were never found.

On the 1,293-square-meter property now stands a two-story building that houses a shop selling industrial gaskets, lubricants and heat insulation materials, a hardware, an eatery and a cultural club called Philippine Dawning.

On the building?s top floor is the Ruby Tower temple, built a couple of years after the Aug. 2, 1968, tragedy by the survivors who formed the Ruby Tower Memorial Foundation.

The shrine is ?more than a memorial to the dead,? some Sta. Cruz barangay officials pointed out. It also serves to remind us of some unpleasant truths about the construction business and, probably, the sad state of affairs in our judicial system, they said.

Most, if not all, city folk interviewed for this story no longer ask why it happened. But they still wonder: Will it take another Ruby Tower to shake those concerned out of their complacency?

A technical team formed by then Manila Mayor Antonio Villegas, the city fiscal?s office and the Senate investigated the case.

Over a dozen charged

More than a dozen people were subsequently charged with multiple homicide and multiple physical injuries through criminal negligence.

They included Cesar Gocheco, manager of Solid Towers Inc. (STI) which owns the Ruby Tower, and STI directors Francisco Chiong, Pacifico Yap, Alfonso Gocheco and Lim Lian; architect Raymond Garcia; structural engineer Buenaflor Velasquez; labor contractor Chan Thaw; City Hall supervising engineer and concrete inspector Gavino Lindain and his assistant Julio Primero, and building inspector Rodolfo Vergel de Dios.

The 14-man technical team commissioned by Villegas to investigate the Ruby Tower?s collapse disclosed that the building was ?a product of catastrophic combination of poor design, deficient construction and inadequate inspection and supervision.?

The body?s 52-page interim report also revealed that ?no soil exploration on the building site had been conducted. There were also no slump tests for concrete as well as strength tests for reinforcing steel.?

?The supposed concrete inspector was at the job site only for about one hour daily, delegating his duties to an unlicensed engineering graduate. There were deviations from the approved plans during the actual construction and there were attempts to minimize costs of labor and materials to maximize profits,? said the report.

The result: The building collapsed ?like a house of cards,? according to newspaper accounts.

No one answered for crime

Like former Ruby Tower shrine caretaker Rodolfo Galon, many city folk could not understand why no one has answered for the crime.

Because there?s no more crime to speak of.

?They settled the case,? current shrine caretaker Teresita Dy told the Inquirer.

Solid Towers had earlier turned over the entire property to the survivors of the 1968 tragedy. ?The survivors, represented by the foundation, now own this place,? Dy said.

According to Dy, members of the foundation would rather not talk about anything associated with the accident.

?It is like a closed book to them,? said Dy, who also helps run Gaspac Enterprise, the industrial materials shop on the ground floor.

Dy herself lost at least 10 of her former schoolmates in Binondo. She was 18 and a commerce sophomore at the University of Santo Tomas when the killer quake struck.

?It?s understandable why the temple remains padlocked the whole year round, even on All Saints? Day and All Souls? Day. Apparently, those who survived the tragedy wanted to be left only with the cherished memories of their lost loved ones,? said Dy.

Dy said many of the survivors had migrated to Canada and the United States.

Suzie and Shirley

Among them were Suzie Wong Chan, then aged 9 and a third grader at St. Stephen?s School, and her cousin Shirley Wong Chan, then 12, whose survival beneath the rubble for more than 125 hours was considered nothing short of a miracle.

?But some return to the country for the Aug. 2 anniversary, and in typical Chinese tradition join fellow survivors in offering food, flowers and, of course, prayers for their departed loved ones,? Dy said.

For the survivors, the entire block is hallowed ground.

The temple, Dy said, ?has not changed much. The hall is still festooned with the same black and white pictures of about 100 of the quake victims. A cleaning woman drops by at least once a month.?

Then President Ferdinand Marcos declared a state of national emergency after the quake, the weather bureau said, that hit Isabela at 4:21 a.m. and rolled through an 800-kilometer stretch from Aparri in Cagayan to Samar in 33 seconds.

More than 140 aftershocks were felt within a 15-hour period after the major quake. Fires triggered by the tremor hit the South Harbor and Feati University, among others, the Daily Mirror newspaper reported.

?A giant foot stamped on it?

?Crumpled as if a giant foot had stomped on it, the Ruby Tower was a mass of twisted steel and concrete with an estimated 600 to 800 occupants still trapped inside,? the daily said.

The late Manila Times publisher Joaquin ?Chino? Roces was ?among the first to arrive at the disaster area to help rescue the victims.? Marcos and then First Lady Imelda Marcos also came, accompanied by Leyte Gov. Benjamin Romualdez.

The Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry and other private groups actively took part in the rescue efforts. One of its leaders, the late banker and philantrophist Ralph Nubla Sr., was later conferred by Marcos the Presidential Merit Award for ?humanitarian services rendered during the Ruby Tower disaster.?

Several gold bars recovered from the collapsed building were turned over to the federation.

Disaster management

When rescue operations ended on Aug. 9, 1968, the official death toll stood at 268. Many of the dead were never identified.

Maj. Gen. Gaudencio Tobias, then Armed Forces vice chief of staff and head of the Ruby Tower rescue efforts, declared that tenants who remained unaccounted for ?might have escaped on their own or with the help of their neighbors shortly after the building collapsed.?

When the Ruby Tower collapsed in 1968, the government?s lack of interest in disaster management was somehow reversed. Later that year, the Marcos administration put up the National Committee on Disaster Operation which shortly afterward transferred its functions to the newly created Office of Civil Defense.

Next came the National Disaster Control Center, the forerunner of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, the highest policymaking body on disasters in the country.

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