5 Shocking Tragedies In Philippine History: O Zone Disco Fire, MV Doña Paz, And More
Not for the faint of heart: Tatler lists the most harrowing tragedies in Philippine history. Get to know the story behind Manila Film Center's collapse, Ozone Disco fire, and the sinking of the 'Filipino Titanic': MV Doña Paz.
Every night we sleep ever so soundly, secure in the knowledge that the sun will soothe us with its warm rays tomorrow. Sad as it may seem, there are things beyond our control; for people in this article, another sunrise was simply an imagining.
There are tragedies that time can never bury. For this write-up, Tatler Philippines retells the story of some of the country's darkest, most gruesome incidents.
Manila Film Center
In 1981, former first lady Imelda Marcos together with Betty Benitez, the spouse of then Deputy MHS Minister Jose Conrado Benitez, spearheaded the construction of the Manila Film Center. The establishment, which boasts a 360-degree theatre, film laboratory, and film archive centre, was built to host the 1982 Manila International Film Festival.
It was said that Marcos wanted to rival Cannes as a world film capital; she envisioned that the Philippines was destined to become the "Cannes of Asia," envied by nations in the Southeast.
With a budget of $25 million (PHP 1,257,625,000~ today), Marcos and Benitez organised a group to pursue the project. The building, which was to be modelled after the Pantheon in Rome, should have taken six weeks to finish; however, the 4,000 construction workers were only given three days.
For the project to be completed in such a short span of time, the labourers had to work nonstop: three shifts every 24 hours.
Around 3am on 17 November 1981, Manila Film Center's scaffolding collapsed and buried workers alive. To this day, the official figures (28 dead) are disputed by the bereaved families and labourers present on site. Many people claim that there were over a hundred bodies in the rubble. Local and international newspapers reported the event and pointed their fingers at the "irresponsibility" of the government at the time.
The Show Must Go On
Despite the chilling tragedy, the film centre opened on schedule with the first-ever Manila Film Festival in January 1982. Among the Hollywood stars that the place welcomed were Brooke Shields and George Hamilton.
Rumours, Myths, And Chilling Stories
Because of its tragic story, not a single Filipino would dare to step into the premises of the Manila Film Center alone. Few years after the notorious accident, a group of psychics together with Tony Perez of Ateneo de Manila University attempted to 'exorcise the place'. In his writings, Perez claimed that they sensed the presence of over 100 spirits.
Both Marcos and Benitez allegedly experienced the wrath of these spirits. Shortly after the film centre's collapse, Benitez met an unfortunate accident that led to her death. She and O.D. Corpus, former president of the University of the Philippines crashed their car into a tree. Only Corpus survived this ordeal. Urban legends say that the ghosts of the dead appeared in the middle of the road to meet their car, “sightless, all dressed in black, but their voices could be heard and their fingers could be seen.”
Meanwhile, Journalist Teodoro "Teddy" Benigno, Jr., in his Philippine Star column, disclosed that Marcos herself summoned Igorot shamans to ward off the film centre's spirits.
MV Doña Paz
Most of the people who boarded the Japanese-built and Philippine-registered passenger ferry MV Doña Paz in 1987 had no clue that their feet would never again step on land. Just before midnight of 20 December 1987, Doña Paz collided with MT Vector, an oil tanker carrying 8,800 US barrels of gasoline and other petroleum products en route from Bataan to Masbate. Upon collision, the Vector's cargo ignited and caused a fire that gutted Doña Paz.
The 2,250-ton ship, which was carrying passengers who were trying to get home for Christmas, only listed 1,493 passengers and a 53-member crew on its cargo document; however, survivors of the clash claim that the vessel carried more than 4,000 people—twice as many as its declared capacity of 1,518 passengers and 60 crew members.
On the night of the tragedy, passengers were only left with two choices: to die by drowning or burning.
Paquito Osabel, one of the survivors, bared the situation in Doña Paz hours after it collided with the Vector. In his account, Osabel said that the ship was very crowded that people huddled on the floor "cross-legged."
At 10 pm, Osabel shared that people onboard were already shouting in panic. There were flames everywhere.
“The fire spread rapidly and engulfed our ship. There were flames everywhere. People were screaming and jumping,” Osabel told the LA Times. “The smoke was terrible. We couldn’t see each other, and it was dark. I could see flames on the water below, but I jumped anyway.”
In a separate account, Zosimo de la Rama, who had also survived the Doña Paz incident, remembered being trampled several times as he crawled to the ship’s railings. “The whole place was burning. I heard cries for help. And I kept saying, ‘God, God, why is this happening?’ and I imagined Satan laughing at all of us,” he disclosed.
Doña Paz only had 26 survivors; 24 of them were passengers from Doña Paz while the other two were crewmen from Vector's 13-man crew.
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Manila Hostage Crisis
The Manila hostage crisis, officially known as the Rizal Park hostage-taking incident, traumatised bus commuters for some time. The horrific event transpired when disgruntled former Philippine National Police officer Rolando Mendoza hijacked a tourist bus on 23 August 2010. On the bus were 25 people, among them are 20 tourists, four local Filipinos, and a tour guide from Hong Kong.
Mendoza's reason for causing such catastrophe? He had been unfairly dismissed from his post and demanded a fair hearing to defend himself.
Because the tragedy happened in the digital age, negotiations were broadcasted live on TV and on the Internet. The dramatic and nerve-wracking exchange of events was prolonged when the police arrested Mendoza's brother, inciting Mendoza to open fire. The bus driver managed to escape the scene and shouted "Everyone is dead!" before he was whisked away by authorities.
Following a 90-minute shootout, Mendoza and eight of the hostages were killed and several others injured.
Ozone Disco Fire
The nightlife in the street of Tomas Morato was thriving in the late 1990s; it was because of Ozone Disco, a bar where students and young professionals party from dusk to dawn.
At 11:35pm on 18 March 1996, 350 patrons and 40 club personnel suffered in the fire that broke out inside Ozone. Survivors reported seeing sparks flying inside the disc jockey's booth, followed by smoke which they thought was staged by the DJ.
When the remains of the party-goers were discovered, authorities said that a lot of them were "along the corridor leading to the only exit, piled up waist-high." Police added that the only way out had been locked from the outside by the club's security guards, who thought that a riot had taken place.
Today, the incident is officially acknowledged as the "worst fire in Philippine history."
No soul could ever forget the fate of 58 people who lost their lives in the Maguindanao massacre. On 23 November 2009, mass graves of victims were found in the town of Ampatuan in Mindanao. The dark story stemmed from a political rivalry. In 2009, Esmael Mangudadatu, who was then-Buluan vice mayor, challenged Andal Ampatuan Jr, a member of the powerful Ampatuan clan in Mindanao, for the position of governor.
Mangudadatu's supporters, family, and members of the media were on their way to the provincial capitol to file his certificate of candidacy. At the time, Mangudadatu had to stay home after he received a series of death threats. He and his party believed that bringing members of the media would prevent Ampatuan from making any move to prevent him from running.
But in broad daylight, Ampatuan's men attacked the convoy of Mangudadatu. 58 people– including 32 journalists – were mercilessly slaughtered in Sitio Masalay, Barangay Salman, Ampatuan, Maguindanao.
Ten years after the gory massacre, Quezon City Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 221 Judge Jocelyn Solis Reyes ruled that the Ampatuan brothers Datu Andal Jr, Zaldy, and Anwar Sr were guilty of 57 counts of murder.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has labelled the Maguindanao massacre the single deadliest event for journalists in history.