The Day Pinatubo Turned Day Into Night

MANILA, Philippines --- "I thought it was the end of the world. All day long, it was dark like night."

This was how a child remembered the day in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo in Zambales belched ash and molten rock in one of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions of the 20th century.

Rona Katrina Suelan was four weeks short of her fourth birthday. At the time, she was living with her aunts in Zambales since her parents were working as OFWs in the Middle East.

Rona remembered being "awakened by the rushing sound of my three teenage aunts, who were sisters of my mother." The teenagers were staying in her maternal grandparents' house, which was a stone's throw away from their home.

She recalled that her aunt opening and closing the windows, nervously taking a peek at what was happening outside.

The youngsters stayed inside the house since Rona's grandfather was stranded at work. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was stranded in another house that served as their summer villa in Maloma, a small village on the Zambales side of Pinatubo.

For the next few days, Rona's group survived by eating the canned goods her parents brought home as gifts every time they returned to the country.

The house was a bungalow, and when their relatives came to check on them, they found an almost two-foot-high pile of ash covering the roof.

Rona's most vivid memory of those days was when a small bird strayed into their house, perhaps to escape the ash fall. Other animals like dogs also took shelter in the house.

The eruption also had a major impact on Rona's life. Whenever there are earthquakes, the scenes from her childhood flashed in her mind.

Straddling the provinces of Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga, Pinatubo is considered as one of the biggest active volcanoes in the country.

Scientific studies indicate that the volcano had been asleep for 500 years ago before it awakened in March 1991.The mountain began to emit hot gases and ashes. Several small eruptions followed in the next few weeks.

On June 3 the volcano had its first major eruption, and another large explosion followed four days later. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) raised the alert level to 5, triggering the evacuation of around 60,000 people living near Pinatubo.

On June 15, seismographs monitoring the mountain went wild as Pinatubo spewed ashes 34 kilometers into the sky.

Pyroclastic flows began pouring from the summit reaching as far as 16 kilometers away.

Typhoon "Yunya" slammed into the country on the same day, and rains mixed with ash deposits to produce lahar. The giant ash cloud covered an area of 125,000 square kms, bringing total darkness to much of Central Luzon.

Close to 850 people died in the eruption, a relatively small number. But the eruption also left more than a million homeless.

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Coordinating Council, the most affected areas were 96 towns in Zambales, 178 towns in Pampanga and 88 villages in Tarlac.

Lahar also clogged up at least eight major river systems in Central Luzon.

In Metro Manila, volcanic dust forced authorities to suspend classes for several days. Ninoy Aquino International Airport was temporarily closed for four days.

The eruption had environmental consequences as well. Pinatubo released 15 to 30 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which triggered ozone depletion. Ash clouds reduced global temperatures by 0.5 to 0.6 degree Celsius.

The US also abandoned Clark Air Base after it suffered massive damage from the eruption.

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