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Cherry Hills 11 years later: Still no justice

By Lawrence de Guzman
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:54:00 08/04/2010

Filed Under: Weather, Environmental Issues, Landslide, Disasters (general)

ELEVEN YEARS after a massive landslide destroyed over 300 homes and killed 59 people at Cherry Hills Subdivision in Antipolo City, the homeowners are still yearning for justice.

It was only two years ago that the Court of Appeals affirmed the Department of Justice to proceed with the criminal prosecution of the subdivision developers. The pretrial isn?t until this November.

Many of the residents have left to rebuild their lives elsewhere, but others have stayed on, and are unable to forget.

The disaster occurred on the night of Aug. 3, 1999, after four days of rain in Rizal and Metro Manila. Survivors said they heard a loud creaking noise and felt the earth moving. Then came a loud crash that to some sounded like a bomb explosion. Then the surge of muddy water.

In the wink of an eye, one survivor of that grim night said, rows of houses collapsed, piling one on top of the other.

In one house, a birthday party was going on when the landslide thundered down the hillside. It was just around 7:30 in the evening.

The rains had loosened the earth and caused a cliff to collapse, sending tons of mud cascading on the homes. Eyewitnesses said they saw gushes of muddy water simultaneously erupting along several streets in the subdivision.

Seeking a closure

?I hope that they get what is due them,? 37-year-old Ardin Ferrer told the Inquirer last weekend. ?We are lucky we did not lose anyone or anything, but I hope those who did would find closure in the courts.?

Ferrer is among the survivors who chose not to file any case against the developers just so?he said?his wife and two children could go back to the subdivision.

Developed by Philippine-Japan Solidarity Corp. (Philjas), Cherry Hills Subdivision in Barangay San Luis was meant to be a low-cost housing project.

Even before tragedy struck, a lot of buyers had complained about the developers? supposed failure to complete the project as planned.

In July 1999, a resident filed a criminal complaint against Philjas general manager Hiroshi Ogawa and assistant general manager Eliezer Rodriguez for violation of a presidential decree which regulates the sale of subdivision lots and condominiums, and another law which pertains to standards and technical requirements for housing projects.

Moral responsibility

A series of investigations ensued following the tragedy.

An inspection by Mines and Geosciences Bureau found that the community was built on very unstable ground and did not have a sufficient drainage system. It also said the area was vulnerable to ground slippage because of a deeply dipping slope to the west.

?The houses were apparently poorly constructed? and some of those inspected ?did not have the necessary foundation work,? it said in a report released days after the tragedy.

Philjas Corp. president Tirso Santillan denied the findings. ?We believe that nobody could have prevented what happened in Cherry Hills. No amount of construction technique could have prevented it. We believe we don?t have a legal liability,? he said after the report came out.

?But we have a moral responsibility. Our priority right now is to help the families that have been affected,? Santillan said.

Senate findings

Philjas later gave each family P15,000, and another P10,000 for those who lost a loved one.

The tragedy prompted a Senate investigation, which concluded that the disaster ?was not force majeure? as the developers claimed, but a result of the negligence of the developers and of government agencies, which failed to enforce rules on the construction of low-cost homes.

The Senate report also indicated that the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB), the Antipolo City government and Philjas were responsible for the disaster.

In December 1999, the Office of the Ombudsman dismissed five housing and environment officials for ?gross neglect of duty.? It also suspended 13 other housing, environment and Antipolo City officials.

Several residents filed criminal charges before the Antipolo Regional Trial Court against Philjas officials Ogawa, Santillan and Rodriguez for incomplete development of the subdivision.

However, the Antipolo City prosecutor?s office dismissed the cases, citing lack of basis. This prompted the residents to bring the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Legal battle

Criminal cases were also filed against Philjas officials Ogawa, Santillan, Rodriguez, Sixto Caday, Timoteo Layos and Virgilio Garcia, this time for reckless imprudence resulting in homicide, serious physical injuries and damage to property.

In August 2002, then Justice Secretary Hernando Perez ordered the filing of criminal information against the developers for failing to complete the subdivision.

But Philjas filed a petition for certiorari before the Court of Appeals, arguing that it was the HLURB?not the DOJ?which had primary jurisdiction to determine violations of housing and subdivision laws.

In April 2004, Santillan, Rodriguez, Layos and Garcia pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless imprudence. Caday had died, while Ogawa had been at large.

In September 2008, the Court of Appeals affirmed the DOJ decision to proceed with the criminal prosecution of the developers.

Not guilty plea

In June 2009, Santillan pleaded not guilty before the Antipolo RTC Branch 74. Judge Mary Josephine Lazaro issued warrants of arrest for Ogawa and Rodriguez, who had also gone at large.

A pretrial of the case is scheduled for Nov. 8.

The prosecution has presented three witnesses on the charges of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide, serious physical injuries and damage to property against Philjas officials at Antipolo RTC Branch 73. The prosecution is scheduled to present more evidence on Nov. 15.

Still a home

Today, Cherry Hills is still home to those who have stayed despite its tragic past.

?A lot of those who used to reside here have fled to Quezon City, Bulacan, Zambales and Parañaque,? said 59-year-old Nicandro Fabonan, whose family is among those who have returned to Cherry Hills.

Fabonan?s house was among the 60 homes that survived the landslide. From his gate, the mass of land where the houses of his neighbors once stood is visible.

The Fabonans apparently were able to survive because they thought an earthquake had struck minutes before the actual landslide hit, and they were able to get out of the house fast.

?I was happy that my daughter and wife were safe and our house was intact. But, of course, I was sad to lose some of my friends.?

Fabonan said those who filed cases against the developers were not allowed to come back. Many of those who settled their cases with Philjas either sold their houses or put them on lease.

?We stayed because it?s hard to start all over again. It?s hard to forget, but it?s not as if we had a choice,? Fabonan said.

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