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Documentary : The Saturday the Sky Rained Fire and Ash : Day became night. Quakes rocked the land. People ran from the choking grime. Even for a reporter who knows disaster, an eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was plenty scary.

June 25, 1991|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANGELES, Philippines — It had been raining mud, giant gritty splotches of gray mud, for more than an hour when an ominous roar suddenly sounded and the wooden City Hall rumbled and shook. Heide Patio went to the window of her office, peered out and turned back.

"It's erupting again," she said anxiously.

It was about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15. We had driven here, two hours north of Manila, to monitor Mt. Pinatubo's increasingly violent, weeklong series of eruptions. Angeles is only about 10 miles east of the volcano and it seemed a good place to check for damage. To make matters worse, a typhoon had slammed ashore that morning, flooding much of the area.

Just outside the city, I had stopped the car before crossing an endangered highway bridge. Fed by the floods, the river below was rising fast in a raging brown torrent filled with trees, parts of houses and debris. Half an hour after we nervously sped across, the huge bridge gave way, washing a truck, a jitney and two cars downstream.

Angeles itself was clogged with refugees. Cars, bicycles and a stream of dump trucks inched along, filled with mud-caked families huddling under tarps and umbrellas. Men and boys, clothes and faces coated in grime, clung to the sides. The whites of their eyes, wide with fear, showed their only color. Under skies dark as twilight, they looked like creatures from a science-fiction movie.

City Hall was lit by candles. Upstairs, Patio, head of the city's social welfare department, was explaining that barrios were being evacuated along the rivers.

"We're just praying it doesn't come to worse," she said. "This is the first time we've seen a calamity like this. We tell people to keep praying."

Then came the roar. I went downstairs and was amazed. The rain and wind had stopped. Instead, a fierce hail of sand and golf-ball sized pumice was pouring down, clattering off cars and tin roofs. Soon the sky literally turned pitch-black. The sour stench of sulfur filled the air.

Holding a flashlight and umbrella overhead, I tried interviewing refugees, but few wanted to talk. "We must leave," one mud-caked man shouted above the din. "The rivers are getting too high." As the falling grit grew heavier, another man uttered the obvious: "It's like the end of the world."

I was with my wife, Maggy, and a friend, both radio reporters. We decided we'd seen enough. We scraped an inch of rocks and ash off the windshield, and pulled into the traffic. I told my driver, Bong Abongan, to take the MacArthur Highway, the only road leading south with no bridges.

The two-lane road was gridlocked with four lanes of fleeing traffic. The hail of small rocks banged our Toyota sedan's roof and hood, and thick ash quickly overwhelmed the windshield wipers. When we ran out of water, we tried using Coca-Cola and then, finally, San Miguel beer to keep the windshield clear. Nothing worked.

Finally, Bong donned a gas mask I'd brought back from the Gulf War, stuck a baseball cap and Manila Hotel towel on his head and drove with his head out the window. I tied a red bandanna over my nose and mouth and a hood over my cap and tried to help from the passenger side. Later, I took the gas mask and drove.

By 4 p.m., the hard rain of gravel had given way to a steady whoosh of coarse dry sand falling from the sky. Already 3 inches thick, it crunched and crackled underfoot, like fresh snow. Hundreds hiked miserably along the roadside, often barefoot, clutching children and infants wrapped in ragged towels.

Conditions quickly grew worse. Each few minutes, the road heaved and swayed from volcano-driven earthquakes, shaking the car. Tall, leafy acacia trees along the road cracked like rifle shots in the dark as limbs broke, blocking traffic further. Otherwise the air was silent and warm, almost steamy.

Suddenly the midnight-dark sky exploded with strange orange streaks of horizontal lightning and booming thunderclaps. Every so often, the sky blazed bright red and rumbled from new eruptions. The hellish display lasted for hours as we crawled along the nightmarish road.

I got out and walked several times. An ambulance sat stalled in traffic, its red lights flashing through the gloom. A Dodge dump truck of refugees had lost its headlights as well as its windshield wipers. So a boy sat forlornly on the cab, pelted by the volcanic debris as he held an umbrella over the windshield and aimed a flashlight at the road ahead.

"Where is it safe? Where should we go?" asked Ron Maniti, 24, as he drove his wife and three crying children on a mud-splattered motorcycle. I had no answer.

A group of mud-caked women, cowering with their children on another truck bed, tried to pray as they lurched along. "I pray to God, I pray to God," sobbed Rahina Ramirez, 46.

Another man, a dentist, stood in a grit-encrusted pith helmet. "I think I'm closer to God now," he said softly. "And I expect him to be closer to me."

Edgardo Lansangan, 34, a watchman who wore a towel on his head, had another view. "It looks like hell," he said.

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