“Go to the office ASAP! - Kabayan”
That’s the message on my pager (Yes, I’m that old) that woke me up at about 5AM. Immediately, I got up and dressed up. While taking a bath, I was listening to the radio trying to see what breaking news brought about that message. Either a plane crashed or a ship sank or a massacre happened. I just heard about a fire somewhere. But our boss usually didn’t call us in the wee hours of the morning just to rush to a fire scene (except when it’s during our New Year’s Eve coverage). So, I didn’t give much thought to the news. I asked the cab driver to floor the gas pedal.
As soon as I got in the booth of DZMM, Kabayan Noli De Castro told us to rush to Ozone Disco. I learned that a fire broke out there. I was one of the media men who got in first after the firemen extinguished the fire.
When I got in with my cameraman Rommel Juanesa, the strong smell of burnt flesh almost overcame us. On the dance floor near the only known exit, we saw a lot of bodies burned to a crisp piled on top of each other. I could still see the horrible images in my mind.
Most of the victims were graduating or just graduated from college. Lives and dreams went up in smoke on that fatal day. The few survivors had to live with disfigurement and cope with fear of fire and enclosed spaces. They went there to celebrate a milestone in their lives. Most of them got a headstone instead.
It was a death trap. To open the door, one had to pull it. It did not swing both ways. I could just imagine the horror as the victims crammed the exit and tried to push that door open. The fire exit was not properly marked. And when we exited through it, the door led to another establishment and not immediately outside the premises.
Total body count? 162 casualties. It was the most number of burned bodies that I ever saw in my 7-year career as a writer-segment producer of the investigative TV program, Magandang Gabi. Bayan.
During the retrieval operation, I remember seeing one of the rescue workers collecting the wallets and other belongings of the victims and placing it in a box. (On hindsight, he should not have done that. Many of the bodies went unidentified.) I looked at the wallet on top of the file. I thought of looking for IDs and then contacting the relatives. But a reporter had the same idea and beat me to it. While he rummaged through the wallet, I immediately recognized the name on a calling card.
I immediately radioed our office and asked them to call his house, hoping that it was somebody else. That he just gave his card away. It was an agonizing wait. Then, they radioed back. It was my friend. He was burned beyond recognition. But I remember seeing a body being removed with a big buckle. His favorite belt. It didn’t register in my mind.
My friend along with another friend perished in that inferno.
That was more than 18 years ago. “The Ozone Disco Club fire has been officially acknowledged as the worst fire in Philippine History and among the 10 worst nightclub fires in the world.” (Inquirer.Net)
Those horrific memories came back to me when I heard that, just the other day, “The Sandiganbayan 5th Division found seven former officials of the Quezon City Engineer's Office guilty beyond reasonable doubt of a violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act in connection with the Ozone Disco club fire on March 18, 1996,… each to suffer an indeterminate penalty of imprisonment of six years and one month as minimum to 10 years as maximum with perpetual disqualification to hold public office.” (Ibid)
It was indeed a justice-delayed-justice-denied case. Sadly, “The clerk of court clarified those convicted are not going straight to prison since they are still on bail and they can file a motion for reconsideration within 15 days.” (Ibid) I won’t be surprised that most if not all of the accused were already abroad.
The news made me relive that terrible moment. The sight. The smell. The shiver in my spine when I saw my friend’s name on that calling card. It was a tragic loss.
Once again, I am reminded: “Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants.” (Ephesians 5:16-17, The Message) Life is short. Death is sure. Let us make the most of the life that God gave us. This life will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.
Seize the day. Seize eternity.