When it hits you

published at The Standard May 18, 2015

Just Saturday morning I wrote a column on the fire that killed 72 people inside a factory in Barangay Ugong, Valenzuela City, my hometown. On Saturday night, I was putting my room in order when I heard a commotion in the neighborhood. There was a fire, people were saying, and it was just a few streets away.
Yes, another fire. In the same city.
Curiosity is a human impulse. I stepped out our gate and to the gate of the townhouse compound where we lived. True enough, the flames were big and the smoke loomed tall and menacing.  Embers that were shot up into the air came down, still aglow—and on the ground where I was standing.
Another human impulse is to panic at the first sign of danger.  I went back to the house to put a few things in my bag—but what things, and how large the bag? Cell phone, wallet, charger—that was about it.  I went back outside but felt I did not put in enough important things. The kids were all standing up and looking on, feeling worried but trying to maintain their composure.
In such an event, the mind blacks out. What to save first, just in case? Clothes on your back? Books by your bedside? The crucifix on the wall? I decided to pick up a bag containing all our family’s important documents—birth certificates, report cards, passports, bills. I would have brought my laptop but it recently bogged down and I had left it at the office. I remember thinking, thank God for the Internet, because many things that were valuable to me—photos with friends and loved ones, and the entire archive of my published work – were online.
It was then I realized that families should always have a plan for such emergencies. A ready list, at least, of what to bring and where these essentials are located. For parents who work long hours, at whatever time of day, kids and other members of the household must be sufficiently briefed about what to do and where to go in the event of a fire, or earthquake, or a typhoon or flood . So briefed that they do not have a chance to lose their presence of mind.
* * *
With my bag ready by the door, I asked my boys to accompany me to check on a friend’s mother who lived nearer the fire-razed area than I did. She was okay but shaken. On the way there, we saw hundreds of people converging on the street, looking at the flames as though entranced by them. I did not realize that there were that many people in our neighborhood.  Every now and then a fire truck would come in or go out of the street, and people would shout, collectively: “Tabi (Step aside)!!!”
Some had their hastily packed belongings on the street, clothes bundled up in bedsheets, plastic drawers and even pets. Some were crying and others, obviously coming from outside (it was a Saturday night, after all), were in a hurry to check on loved ones. The mayor alighted from his car and went straight to the commotion, probably asking himself what he did to deserve at least two fires in the span of less than a week.
There were those standing on the street, wrapped in towels or blankets and just gazing into the fire as though wondering if it would reach their own houses and gut everything they had worked hard for.
Surprisingly, however, some bystanders can manage to crack jokes as people speculated what might have caused the fire. Thankfully, after about an hour, the fire seemed smaller and the smoke did not rise so high. People were relieved and started going back home. I put my stuff back to my room and fell asleep.
* * *
Sometimes we are not able to appreciate how vulnerable we always are until we come face to face with it. The few who are lucky are able to do as we did: get back home and climb into bed, thankful that it was just a brush with danger. Through the night we awoke to a smell of burnt objects, but were afraid no more as the sirens had stopped.
The more introspective would get into thinking how every comfort, every familiar thing we take for granted can just be wiped out in a matter of minutes. It’s a good, if jarring, exercise to evaluate which things we pick up to save, and which we can afford to leave behind.