23 years after Pagoda tragedy, Catholics rediscover faith
A brand new Pagoda set sail on June 24, carrying the Holy Cross around the Bocaue River for Catholics who began a nine-day evening novena before the start of the “Krus sa Wawa” (Feast of the Holy Cross) next month.
It is a religious and cultural tradition that is slowly bringing back Catholics to prominence in a town that is also home to the influential Jesus Is Lord movement began by former presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva, and the hub of worship for the Iglesia ni Cristo when it built the Philippine Arena there.
This year’s Krus sa Wawa festivities are using the Pagoda to promote unity because of the divisive May 9 elections, said Michael Yanga, a member of the festival committee.
But the Pagoda ritual is also rising from the ashes of a 23-year-old tragedy and has emerged once again as a symbol for change for Bocaue residents regardless of their spiritual and religious preferences.
On July 2, 1993, the Pagoda that was being paraded by devotees capsized on the seventh night of that year’s novena, killing 270 people. It took more than two decades for the country to forget the tragedy and for a new Pagoda to sail again in 2014.
The Pagoda is a large multi-level structure designed to hold the Holy Cross and a good number of devotees.
Ruben Mercado, one of the people who organized the Pagoda’s revival, said the 1993 accident occurred even before the Pagoda had moved away from its makeshift docks.
People had ignored festival officials at the time and began climbing aboard the floating structure. “Members of the organizing committee were angry but people then ignored them, and continued to board the Pagoda,” he said.
Many accounts said that an explosion (possibly from a skyrocket) startled the people on the Pagoda, causing panic. People rushed to the sides, toppling the structure because of the their combined weight.
Once it capsized, the second and third levels of the Pagoda collapsed and wooden debris began hitting people in the waters.
Symbol of hope
Msgr. Albert Suatengco, the parish priest who helped revive the festivities in 2014, said the Pagoda had always been a symbol of hope in the town.
But since its return, people have not only rediscovered their faith but have embraced change and progress for their town. At some level, Suatengco said, “the politics of the town’s voters has risen [because] they have started to care about its future and who would lead them.”
Bocaue has a riverside monument honoring young Sajud Bulig, who died from falling debris as he tried to rescue people from drowning when the Pagoda capsized.
Mercado, who served as the festival committee chair in 2014, said Bocaue residents have learned from the tragedy and have been careful about the Pagoda ritual.
No more than 200 devotees are allowed to board the Pagoda. Each devotee is also required to register in a passenger manifest and to wear a life vest.
Edgar Valero, 61, a fisherman from Bocaue who is tasked each year to serve as the Pagoda’s navigator by guiding it on a motorized fishing boat, said organizers also make sure the boat guides are from Bocaue.
During last year’s anniversary of the tragedy, Suatengco led a prayer for the 270 victims. The bell on the Pagoda rang as the names of the victims were read. Red and white rose petals showered the waters and white balloons were let loose.
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