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Fire In The Philippine Sky

By: Bob Glutting

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo was a catastrophic event of the twentieth century. It affected lives in different ways. Mount Pinatubo is located in the province of Luzon 60 miles north of Manila and only 8 miles west of Clark Air Base. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the fourth largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century, four times larger than Mount Saint Helen in Oregon.

There has been a lot of speculation on what triggered the volcanic activity in a volcano that had lain dormant for 610 years. The last reported eruption of Mount Pinatubo was in the year 1381. Scientists believe that the earthquake that rocked the Philippines in the autumn of 1990 caused a shifting in the earth's continental plates causing the pressure inside the earth to build until it had to escape somewhere. That somewhere was Mount Pinatubo.

As the volcanic activity started to increase volcanologists were brought from the United States to study it and try to predict what impact Mount Pinatubo would have on Clark Air Base and the surrounding area. Well, the decision was made to evacuate all the military and dependents from Clark A.B. to Subic Bay Naval Station on the 10th of June, 1991.

The evacuation of Clark A.B. was to start at 0600 on the morning of the 10th. It was a convoy composed of personal and military vehicles. Precautions were taken. Military police lined the streets to lend assistance and provide security for the evacuees. The trip to Subic Bay was a long and tiring drive. The drive was only 60 miles but it took about five hours.

Upon arriving at Subic Bay there was a lot of confusion about where all the evacuees were going to stay. First priority was given to people with children. They were put up in houses or with the families assigned to Subic. The single people were sheltered in gymnasiums or any building that had enough room for people to sleep.

Mount Pinatubo had two smaller eruptions before the major eruption. The first eruption was on Wednesday, June 12, 1991 at 0830. At first it was not clear what was happening. It looked like a mushroom cloud rising from the mountains. It was a very graceful sight. As the cloud of ash rose it went up to a height of 90,000 feet. It started to expand like an umbrella until it had covered the sky, completely blocking out the sun. I remember wondering to myself where was all of that ash going to go. Luckily none of it fell on Subic Bay that day. Later it was determined that the ash had been caught in the jet stream and had drifted as far away as Vietnam, over 900 miles away. The second eruption was on Friday, June 14 and the whole spectacle was repeated one more time except a light dusting of ash fell on Subic Bay-nothing to worry about. People began to feel complacent, no longer fearing the volcano. That was soon to change.

Saturday, June 15th, typhoon Yuma rolled in on the Philippines early in the morning causing the sky to become overcast. At the same time Pinatubo was erupting. This was the big one! The combination of the overcast sky, rain and falling ash totally blocked out all sunlight. This was further complicated by the loss of power to the base. The combination of the two created a menacing feeling. It was as if the earth had just become a Hell and Mount Pinatubo was the devil waiting to strike out at the Philippines.

The ferocity of typhoon Yuma grew as the day went on, and so did the fury of Mount Pinatubo, which was just getting started, with its devastation of the Philippines. As the day went on it started raining sand. The mixture of volcanic ash and rain fell in what had the consistency of wet sand. As this continued throughout the day an accumulation started which was very similar to a snowfall. Mixed in the falling sand were rocks from the volcano, some of which were the size of golf balls. This made it impossible to go outside for fear of being struck by one of these rocks falling form 100,000 feet. So all that could be done was to watch and reflect on what was happening. Then with the typhoon still raging lightning started. This was a spectacular sight because the lightning would ignite the falling ash and it appeared as great streaks of fire across the sky. Then to further complicate things earthquakes started at about 3:00 pm. By this time people's nerves were starting to wear thin. People were scared and wondering what was going to happen, whether they would live or die. As the night began to fall most of the people drifted off to sleep wondering what tomorrow would have in store. Would the sunshine or would there be another day of constant darkness?

Sunday, June 16th was Father's Day. The sun rose early. It was a beautiful day. The typhoon had passed in the night. The volcano had stopped spewing its hatred on the countryside, but the constant reminder of what had happened the day before was very present. The wet ash had accumulated to a depth of 8 to 12 inches and it covered everything. It totally defoliated the jungle and toppled trees. Debris and power lines littered the streets. It looked as if during the night Subic Bay had been transported to the moon. The whole countryside was covered in gray. The only contrast was the crystal blue ocean. In a way there was beauty to be seen in the destruction.

Now came the task of cleaning up the destruction of Mount Pinatubo. The first thing that was done was to get an account of the people to find out if anyone was missing, or words, dead. Surprisingly, only one person lost her life and that occurred when a roof collapsed in the hanger where she was sheltered. The main concern of the officials at Subic Bay was to clear the roads and to restore water and electricity. The roads were littered with fallen trees and abandoned cars. To complicate matters further everything was covered in up to a foot of ash. A snowplow would have worked great to remove the ash from roadways, but unfortunately there aren't any in the Philippines. One of the major concerns was the build up of ash on the roofs of the buildings. This had to be removed because if it were to rain anymore the added weight might cause them to collapse. This was accomplished with shovels and fire hoses.

The situation concerning power and electricity was more complicated. Subic bay has its own electrical facility but this could not be operated because the ash would clog up the generators. All of the fresh water pumping stations on Subic Bay were electrically operated so until power was restored there would not be any fresh water. This posed serious health concerns. Without power food could not be prepared. Also, showers and latrine facilities were non-existent. This power problem prompted officials to enact Operation Fiery Vigil, the evacuation of non-essential people from Subic Bay. This was to be accomplished by sea.

A message was sent out for the aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Midway to report to the Philippines. The USS Abraham Lincoln was the first to arrive. It pulled into port on June 19th. After a brief overnight stay the first group of evacuees were loaded up for their first leg of their journey to the United States. The evacuees were greeted by the sailors of the ship. They were given clean clothes, a place to shower and most of all, hot food and a place to sleep. The hanger deck of the carrier is the place where the planes are stored while they are not on deck or flying. This was transformed into a huge bedroom with 4,000 cots for the people to sleep on, and a dining area where food was served 24 hours a day. As the ship pulled away from the dock there was a feeling of relief just knowing that we were finally safe after living through a week of hell.

The ships sailed to the port of Cebu where the evacuees were flown off the aircraft carriers to the commercial port. Upon arriving they were processed and put onto chartered aircraft and flown to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam for the final processing and a flight to the United States. This was a traumatic experience for some. Many of the dependents were Filipino. They were going to meet families they had never met before and a country they had only heard about. There was both fear and excitement in their eyes. No matter what happened their lives were changed forever.

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