‘When we went back on the road, we realized that was a mistake’: Photog recounts group’s escape from Taal eruption

Picture this: you and six other people are heading to Tagaytay to do a pre-wedding photo shoot on a Sunday morning.

It’s meant to be a sunny day-trip to the tourist town with friends — that is, until a nearby volcano starts spewing a massive column of hot ash and steam into the sky, turning a pleasant Sunday jaunt into a terrifying mud-storm punctuated by earthquakes, anxiety, and hunger as your chances of getting back to Manila seem to quickly evaporate.

That was the situation seven friends found themselves in after piling into a red Toyota Innova belonging to hotel manager Daisy Bautista, who was five months pregnant and with her husband-to-be, writer/editor John Paulo Aguilera. Accompanying them was front office hotel agent Ayra Ramirez, who was also doing her makeup; director Eve Baswel, who was doing styling work; photographer Mark Jesalva; and videographers and creatives Echo Antonio and Lian Dumas.

The friends were heading to Tagaytay to try to pull off a DIY Korean-themed wedding photo shoot.

Then Taal erupted.


“When I posted that photo of the smoke coming out of the volcano, some of my friends were asking for more photos,” Jesalva, the group’s photographer, fumed. “They said I should use this type of lighting, or use a tripod, and try to get more pictures, better ones, and it wasn’t because they were news sites.”

“It felt like they thought what I was doing was cool. It wasn’t cool at all. We were stranded, we didn’t have food, and people who had gone through the ordeal, if you were able to see, were really down and in a bad way — and we were just in Tagaytay. What more were the people who were living closer to the volcano, or on the island, going through?”

Coconuts Manila spoke spoke with Jesalva to get a firsthand account of his group’s ordeal: skidding along muddy roads, being splattered by volcanic mud in a tricycle, losing sleep over volcanic earthquakes, and, finally, making it back home.

So the whole group was there before Taal erupted?

We were there day of the eruption, Sunday morning. We were looking around at restaurants to shoot at around 9:30am. This was along the slew of bulalohan (beef shank joints) at Tagaytay City proper. So we were taking photos and had finished three layouts. I think it was around 1pm when we saw dark clouds hovering in the sky, that’s when we knew the volcano had erupted.

But you didn’t hear the volcano?

We heard thunderstorms. It felt like regular thunderstorms, if you weren’t looking. Initially, we didn’t panic and didn’t think it was a big deal, because it was still light out. Eventually the skies grew progressively darker, and people at the restaurants and even people driving their cars were stopping by the side streets, to look at the sky and take pictures. The staff in the restaurant where we were eating had started panicking as well. 

When did you start panicking?

It started when the ashfall came. The sky quickly turned darker, it was a golden, sort of reddish-black hue. We first thought the ashfall was rain, but then it was dry and sticky. We tried heading back to look for an indoor location to duck into and regroup because the restaurant wanted to close for safety reasons. We were supposed to be in Tagaytay for a day-trip, so we didn’t have a hotel booked. By the time we decided to get out of Tagaytay, the ashfall became much more aggressive, and it started to rain. Traffic became heavier and we were stuck on the roads.

How long were you in traffic and how were you able to keep driving?

I think we were stuck on the road for around four hours, trying to get out of Tagaytay. We were on the road heading back to Manila from around 5:30pm until 9pm. The ash and rainfall by that time had bigger and thicker drops, so there was zero visibility. We were using the water we had packed for drinking to clear the car’s windshield. We would open the windows and clear off the thick mud on the windshield manually. The wiper alone couldn’t push off the mud because it was sticking without water, and the car we were driving had already run out of windshield wiper fluid. You couldn’t see anything, so whenever the car turned, we would need to roll down the windows and make hand signals. But we couldn’t keep it rolled down long, because all mud and grime would come in. It was then we figured that we need to turn back and look for shelter.


How did you get off the road?

So we made a U-turn and we found a restaurant to duck into, but they said they were closing and weren’t taking any more customers for safety reasons. We then ducked into Cityland Tagaytay, the condominium. The guard initially didn’t want to let us in, but we said we just needed to use the toilets and wash the car’s windshield, so he let us in. He let a lot of other people in who were washing up their cars and doing the same thing we were. We rested for a bit and then we decided to try heading back to Manila again. 

Again? 

Yes, so when we went back on the road, we realized that was a mistake, because in just about two minutes, the car was covered in mud again. Traffic was still bad and cars had slowed down more. It was a challenge for Echo, who was driving the car, because the car was skidding on the road. And the water we had saved up from the stop at the condo was easily used up. We were looking at motels to stay in, but most of them were already booked or closed.

But you did get into a hotel eventually, how were you able to do that?

We were lucky that Daisy [the pregnant bride-to-be], had a friend who was the manager of this hotel which was just a few hundred meters away, or a kilometer away from the condo. We checked in at Quest hotel at around midnight. We broke off into three groups: three people went in to check our bags at the hotel, two others went to find parking for the car because the hotel didn’t have any more parking. And then Eve and I went out to look for food. Food was the last thing on our mind, but we also hadn’t eaten since our late lunch. We had small snacks packed, but they were peanuts, things like that.  At around 11pm, the nearby mall, I think it was Ayala Mall, had opened up its parking for free, so two of our group were able to park there.

How did you protect yourself from the ashfall and mud storm while you were out of the car?

We weren’t ready by any means, so we used jackets and umbrellas. Well, they had jackets, I didn’t pack any, I wasn’t ready. But their jackets weren’t the type to repel mud, so it got dirty really quick. Back when we were in the car you couldn’t see anything, but as we were walking, you could see that everything else was covered in mud, and our shoes ended up getting covered in mud. The pool outside the hotel was also grey. Echo, who parked the car in Ayala Mall, said some of the families had been walking from Batangas just to get into the mall so that they could have a safe place to stay. 

By then everything was pitch-black, and when you looked at the sky, you couldn’t see stars. Just thunder and lightning. 

What did the air smell like?

I would describe it as a kind of metal and rock scent; it smelled like firecracker powder. The air was heavy, and it was difficult to breathe. We noticed that each other’s eyes were red. We didn’t see the ash visibly get into our eyes, but it had a sting to it that made them watery and itchy. So one of the first things we did when we got to the hotel was wash our faces and shower.


And when you were at the hotel, were you finally able to rest?

We didn’t. We weren’t able to get food, so we only had the packed snacks… And then every three minutes, there was an earthquake. We even put water in a basin to check that it wasn’t just our wracked nerves making us feel dizzy. And it wasn’t. 

How many earthquakes did you go through?

A lot. I would think somewhere from 12 to 15 earthquakes. And they were easily felt. It wasn’t the kind where people say if you were walking, you couldn’t feel the earthquake. You could feel the earthquake even if you were moving. It felt like you were being nudged awake. We were on the fourth floor of the hotel. We had combined the mattresses so we could [all fit], but it was a very shallow sleep. 

Did you eventually get food?

At about 2am, three people from the group scouted for dinner one last time, and they did come back with some. They hired a tricycle for PHP300 (US$6) to take them back and forth to a nearby 7-Eleven, because he had tipped them off that one was still open somewhere. When they got back, half of their bodies were dipped in the mud, I think partly from riding in the open cab of the tricycle. But they got us water, hard-boiled eggs, and pandesal (a Filipino bread rolls) with egg. Then they bought two bottles of soju [Korean rice wine], just to calm down. 

Was the morning after less chaotic?

It wasn’t. We got woken up together at around 4:45am. It was definitely a memorable wake-up call, because we were woken up by an earthquake. And it was the strongest yet. It went on for about a minute. A minute isn’t very long, but it feels like a long time when you’re going through an earthquake. We had to immediately grab hold of each other, waking up screaming, “Oh my god, oh my god!” because it was really a strong quake. Lian, one of our companions, out of panic, had taken his bag and was ready to leave us behind. We were all laughing at him, but we were also scared and panicking.

 


After getting through that, how did you get back?

So we got our car back from the mall, and the hotel owner had offered to clean up cars of people who were staying at the hotel, so we lined up for that. So Monday morning, while driving out of Tagaytay, there was little visible ashfall by this time, but we had to drive slowly because the roads were still muddy and slippery. A lot of roads were closed, but there were also roads that were cleaned up that we could pass through. If you looked at the view from outside the car, everything was black and grey. Coconut trees, orchids being peddled by the side streets, everything was black or grey. A lot of the roads were closed; we relied on Google Maps, but also had to ask people for directions. Actually, most of the people we asked for directions were members of the media.

But as we were driving, we still felt earthquakes, we felt like at any time, the level 5 full-blown eruption that the news sites were referring to was going to happen, that we would be there when Taal fully erupted. We drove cautiously all throughout. By the time we were in Laguna, the roads were less muddy, dustier, because the sun was also coming up, and the damp ash was getting dry. We breathed a sigh of relief when we were able to finally eat breakfast at a fast-food place near a gasoline stop on SLEX [South Luzon Expressway]. We were back in Manila a little after lunch. I’m from Pasig, one of us is from Cainta, and the others were from Quezon City, we all arrived home at about 2pm.

How are you feeling now?

Tired, but okay. I think the panic that happened in the past days is just settling in — I was trying to keep it together. But I think Pau and Daisy [the couple] were a bit under the weather; they developed a slight fever, and are being checked. [Editor’s note: Pau has said that a doctor has put Daisy on a Nebulizer — a machine used to administer medication directly into the lungs — for a week, while he is still experiencing heavy coughing.] We joked that they should use the Innova as their bridal car because of its memorable experience.

Daisy, by the way, is… due in May, and we joked that if the baby comes out, they should name him Ash.

This article, ‘When we went back on the road, we realized that was a mistake’: Photog recounts group’s escape from Taal eruption, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company. Want more Coconuts? Sign up for our newsletters!