No kid survives Tacloban tent fire

Paterno Esmaquel II
In Tacloban City, more than 3,700 Yolanda survivors remain exposed to similar hazards by living in tents

TENT TRAGEDY. John Mark Ocenar (left), 7, is treated in a hospital before he dies due to cardiac arrest, says Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez. Photo courtesy of Tacloban City government

MANILA, Philippines – John Mark Ocenar, 7, hung on until after 1 pm. The last child standing in his family, he died hours after his mother and 5 siblings did on Wednesday, May 28.

They all survived Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) more than 6 months ago, but not the fire that razed their tent in Tacloban City around midnight until 12:30 am on Wednesday.

It’s the first time that fire killed Yolanda survivors who live in tents, at least in Tacloban City, Mayor Alfred Romualdez told Rappler.

Will it be the last? In Tacloban alone, Romualdez said around 3,760 Yolanda survivors or 800 families remain in tents, exposed to similar hazards. (READ: 130k Yolanda survivors still live in tents)

The story of the Ocenars is like many others.

Romualdez said John Mark’s mother, 35-year-old Maria Eliza, brought her family out of Tacloban after Yolanda. A laundrywoman and housewife, she stayed in Daram, Samar, for a while.

She didn’t live with her husband, a 43-year-old fisherman named Reynante, people who knew her told Romualdez.

Then, around two weeks ago, Maria Eliza and her children returned to Tacloban. In Barangay (Village) 88, San Jose District, “they occupied a tent that was empty, and decided to stay there,” Romualdez said. (READ/WATCH: After Yolanda: Village 88 and The Men of Village 88)

On Wednesday, the fatal accident happened.

Fabric tent ‘burns quite fast’

'TENT CITY.' Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez says the fire didn't affect other 'tent city' residents because they don't live too close to each other. Photo courtesy of Tacloban City government

It likely began with a gas lamp. Unlike other tent dwellers in the area, her family had to make do with the lamp “since they came only two weeks ago” and “were not able to avail of the solar lights” that others used, Romualdez said.

Preliminary findings showed the fire “is believed to have originated from their gas lamp.” Because their makeshift house was made of fabric, the mayor added, it “burns quite fast.”

Maria Eliza and her children struggled to escape. Romualdez said, “Because the fire was so fast, they also weren’t able to run out of their tent in time.”

Rescuers brought them all to the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center.

Romualdez said that as early as 8 am on Wednesday, however, 5 of Maria Eliza’s children had died. He identified them as follows: 

  • Kathlyn Ocenar, 12;

  • Justine Ocenar, 9;

  • Jasmine Claire Ocenar, 5;

  • Tisay Ocenar, 2; and

  • Jacklyn Ocenar, 4 months old

‘It’s so frustrating’

WHAT'S LEFT. Six months after Yolanda, tragedy kills the homeless. Photo courtesy of Tacloban City government

Maria Eliza herself died at past 9 am.

Her 7-year-old child, John Mark, died at around 1:57 pm. Romualdez said the child suffered a cardiac arrest.

Based on a statement from Romualdez’s office, the mother and all her 6 children suffered burns in around 85% of their bodies.

For families like theirs, the problem boils down to the lack of permanent houses, Romualdez said. (READ: 130k Yolanda survivors still live in tents)

He said Tacloban, however, doesn’t have enough budget for these.

In a previous interview with Rappler, he attributed the budget problem to red tape in government – a claim that the budget department quickly refuted. 

“It’s so frustrating,” Romualdez said after Wednesday’s tragedy. –

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at