There was nothing to recall that Saturday. The rains came, as expected. The crowd massive for that year was a given. Was the sun shining? It did, intermittently, as the dark clouds and the rain. That much, yes, I can recall.
A friend from high school was on a brief vacation before he was to leave for the United States. Unlike most of us who were just entering college, this friend was looking to a different life: He was set to join the US Navy. These two friends picked me up after lunch. There were three of us. My home then was at Ateneo Avenue, perhaps the shortest avenue in the world.
We had to be at Colgante, the wooden bridge spanning the river at the end of Santonja, just behind the Colegio de Santa Isabel. My family knew about this. As this friend was going to be away for a long time, he had to be at a special place to watch the fluvial procession of the Virgin of Peñafrancia. This fiesta should be special for him, and for us.
As we were turning left from the corner of Colegio, we saw the huge throng of people. Perhaps, that was not really our purpose – to watch the procession. I don’t know. But this friend said, why don’t we just pay a visit to this girl, a lovely girl living in one of the subdivisions in the city, a place that was quite far from the river?
We all found ourselves in the girl’s home. Food was served. The conversation was warm. My friend was happy to see (maybe for the last time), this lovely girl.
Time passed. We said goodbye, and walked toward the city. When we reached Panganiban Bridge, we saw many people running. Then we saw this photographer, Mang Edong, who used to take the class photographs when we were in high school. He was all wet. We, of course, asked him. Bumagsak ang Colgante, he answered in Tagalog. Colgante had collapsed.
I could not remember anymore what happened, except that the three of us rushed to the site. Women and children were crying. Some were wet and bruised. A quick rescue operation was happening along the bank of the river. The bridge was broken in two; in the middle was the dark river gurgling around broken wood and splinter, wires and bits of metal.
We stayed quite long, I think, because it was already dark when I got back home. I forgot what I told them, that I was going to be watching the procession at the Colgante Bridge.
I did not know that male relatives from Buhi, all kin of my father, had all rushed already to DZRB (the present ABS-CBN), to try to identify one of the corpses lined up on the pavement there. Over the radio, someone had heard of a “Valiente” found among the dead. They were all back in the house when I walked slowly up the stairs, anxious about my coming home late.
I still could hear what my mother said to my father in Tigaonon, the language of Ticao Island: Ayaw na pag uriti. Do not scold him anymore. I suppose they were all happy I was home, not a ghost but someone just irresponsible, as irresponsible as all young men of sixteen or seventeen of any generation.
That night, responding to the call from the radio, some of us went back to Colgante. We brought bread and coffee to share in the retrieval operation happening then. People carried Coleman kerosene lamps to light the river bank. Some had blanket for the divers who would surface every now and then from the black water of the river. Volunteers without any special gears continue to search for more bodies. Relatives and strangers were still wishing for survivors.
It would take many years before we would learn what happened to the procession and the Virgin. Her barge had already passed by Panganiban and was approaching the Colgante Bridge. When the bridge collapsed, Her retinue took her from the barge and went up the side of Mabini. No one, I suppose, even noticed if She passed by the confusion and deaths along the bridge.
The next day, the radio programs all over Naga and the Bikol region were pure sound and fury about the incident. Proposals of class suits and other complaints filled the airlanes. The engineers were being questioned. The recklessness of devotees were being blamed. But it was the city that was getting the brunt of all the anger and recriminations.
Even as these were happening, Naga was in mourning.
For many days, people anticipated what would befall the city officials. The mayor, with the rest of his officials and the engineers should all be jailed! The guilty should be punished.
Old men and women and those who knew the lore of the Peñafrancia faith were, however, were talking of something else. Whenever something unusual and strange takes place during the land or fluvial procession, we should think hard. What is the She telling us?
The fall of the bridge was an omen.
Those who were around during those days knew what happened.
On Sept. 21, 2018 Martial Law was declared. That declaration was on paper. It was hidden from the nation for two more days. Martial Law commenced on Sept, 23, 1972, a quiet Saturday morning. The radio stations all over Naga were quiet. No fiery voice of any broadcaster could be heard. There was just music, instrumental and classical music.
I left home for an ROTC formation in Ateneo de Naga without having listened to the morning broadcast of Rufo Tuy.
We were all lined up, as usual, in front of the Four Pillars. Nothing was happening. After a few minutes, we were all informed about the declaration of Martial Law. We were told to go home and wait for further announcement. Did we bid goodbye? I am not sure.
That day, along the shortest avenue in the world, the lives of young men – all going home – were changed forever. This, I am sure now.