'Panibagong problema': Fire leaves Addition Hills families helpless during pandemic

AT A GLANCE

  • A huge fire breaks out in Barangay Addition Hills in Mandaluyong City during the first day of the general community quarantine, burning down at least 800 buildings and affecting almost 1,000 families. 
  • Barangay Addition Hills has the most number of coronavirus cases in the city. Its local government has implemented hard lockdowns in the past 3 months.
  • With their homes burned to the ground, victims are left distraught while the country faces  unprecedented challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

The first day of the general community quarantine in Metro Manila on Monday, June 1, could have spelled out new opportunities for many Filipinos whose lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Thousands of workers, after all, were left with no livelihood as cities were placed under lockdown to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus. 

In Mandaluyong City, Barangay Addition Hills was placed under hard lockdown due to the severity of the situation over the past 3 months. (IN PHOTOS: 'Total lockdown' in Mandaluyong compound 

A barangay consisting of working class residents with blue collar jobs, Barangay Addition Hills has been tagged as a hot spot, given its minimum 127 confirmed cases, 7 deaths, and 230 probable cases. It ranks first among 27 barangays, with Barangay Mauway, about 2.5 kilometers southeast of it, coming in second with 97 cases. 

With 99,058 residents spread across 162 hectares, the confirmed cases of Addition Hills may just be less than 1% of its population yet they still make up 18% of the total coronavirus cases in Mandaluyong City, which currently stand at 694 as of June 2.

Mandaluyong City ranks 4th in Metro Manila in terms of coronavirus cases.

On June 1, new sets of challenges appeared for at least 1,000 families of Barangay Addition Hills in Mandaluyong City, adding to the hardships they were already reeling from in the past 3 months. 

A fire broke out in one of the houses at 5:30 pm on Monday. It started from Block 37 and, because houses were built cramped in small plots of land, it quickly spread to nearby areas.

Within an hour, the fire reached the 5th alarm. By 8:50 pm, the general alarm was raised – the highest level in classifications of the Bureau of Fire Protection.

BLAZE. Firefighters battle a raging fire gutting a residential area in Barangay Addition Hills in Mandaluyong City on Monday, June 1. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler


Jhonpaul Ibañez, an incoming Grade 12 student, told Rappler he is no stranger to fire incidents in their area. The 18-year-old already had a routine during such times: Grab important documents, go out of the house, and help in whatever way he can. 
 

Over the past 6 years, it's been the 4th time a fire broke out near them. The last 3 were close calls, with BFP personnel putting out the fire maybe a corner or two away. Jhonpaul never imagined the 4th one would cost them their own home.  

Nagulat ako na kahit sa sobrang layo nag-umpisa, umabot pa rin sa lugar namin iyong sunog,” he told Rappler. “May naligtas naman po kami pero papeles, damit, at konting gamit sa bahay, iyon lang talaga, walang natira.” 

(I was surprised because the fire started from a far place. But it still reached our home. We were able to save only a few things. Some documents, clothes, and appliances, nothing else.)

No home during a pandemic

The fire was declared under control almost 7 hours later at 12:05 am on Tuesday, June 2. Authorities estimate that the fire burned down at least 800 buildings, with damage amounting to as much as P2 million. 

Distraught residents, after hours of trying to save what they can, were understandably tired. In the middle of the night, the families dragged their remaining valuables into their assigned evacuation centers, through roads were still drenched with water from the firetrucks.

At least 1,000 families were left without a roof over their heads in the middle of a pandemic that badly hit their barangay. 

Jhonpaul, the second to the youngest of 6 children, lived with his mother, stepfather, and two siblings in a small house on Block 38. The fire destroyed all but a few concrete walls. 

Before the unfortunate incident, Jhonpaul's family was already suffering due to the pandemic. His mother’s work ceased operations, his stepfather then was nowhere to be found. 


At 18, Jhonpaul became the sole breadwinner for his family. Unlike many of his neighbors, he still has a job in a fastfood restaurant. But with no public transportation available, going to work entails walking at least an hour under the heat. 

Inaabot po ako ng isang oras rin sa paglalakad kasi wala naman akong masasakyan,” he said. “Hihinto lang ako kapag nauhaw na ako o nagutom, ganoon talaga eh.” (It takes me about an hour of walking because I really cannot find a ride. I only stop when I’m thirsty or already hungry. There’s really nothing I can do about it.) 

But Jhonpaul’s income was not enough for his family of 5. Even if his workplace remained open under the lockdown, he was only required to go to work every other day. His hours were reduced and his pay was cut drastically. From earning almost P3,500 ($70)* after 15 days of working in January, Jhonpaul said he now only takes home at least P1,800 ($36). 

Kahit nagkaroon ng pasok, medyo sablay pa rin po kasi paputol-putol po, medyo maliit ang kinikita at hindi sumasapat (Even if I had work, it's still not enough because it's not continuous. I earn only a little and it's not enough),” he said. 

The start of the GCQ and the possible lifting of any quarantine guidelines in the coming month would have made things better for Jhonpaul’s family. It would mean they could focus their attention on getting back on their feet. 

But losing their house to the fire has derailed their plans. Home for now is one of the hallways inside the Andres Bonifacio Integrated School. He said they try their best to maintain social distancing, afraid of added tragedy the virus could bring. 

He does not know until when his family will stay and sleep on flattened cardboard boxes. They cannot go back to their home of 6 years. Even if they want to, it would be far too dangerous. 

Masakit po sa pakiramdam na mawalan ng tirahan, mawalan ng tinutuluyan lalo na kung pinaghirapan mo iyong pinagbayad mo doon tapos wala ka assurance na puwede ka pa bumalik,” Jhonpaul said. 

(It’s painful to lose your home, lose a place to live in, especially if you worked so hard to be able to pay for it, and there's no assurance you can return.) 

The next few weeks remain uncertain for his family. But what Jhonpaul is sure of is this: he now has to work harder to earn enough money to rent a new home.

Jhonpaul admitted the responsibilities seem daunting for an 18-year-old. He already has too much on his plate. Aside from being a working student, he is bracing for online classes for his final year in senior high school, all while trying to recover from a costly fire.

But he has no other choice, Jhonpaul told Rappler. He just hopes the situation gets better in Metro Manila so his mother can go back to work. 

Ang gusto ko lang sana ay matulungan kami sa mga pangangailangan namin ngayon lalo na hindi pa ganoon ka-stable ang trabaho, tapos ngayon, wala pa kaming natutuluyan,” he said. “Sobrang nakakapanglugmok po kasi hindi inaasahan tsaka wala pong may gusto.

(I wish someone would help us because our job isn’t that stable and now we have nowhere to live. It’s really disheartening especially since no one expected and wanted this to happen.) 

No home for a two-month-old baby

A few feet from where Jhonpaul and his family were staying lay a two-month-old baby sleeping peacefully. Swathed in a pink blanket, she had to her left a small pink pillow with the face of a popular Disney princess. To her right were hundreds of people trying to get some rest. 

Moments later, she woke up, eager to be fed. Her mother, 25-year-old Roxane, gave her a bottle of milk. 

Baby Kaylee was born in the middle of the pandemic and in a hospital where many coronavirus patients from the city were confined. Roxane had to walk to the nearby Ospital ng Mandaluyong to give birth past midnight of April 18. 

ONLY TWO MONTHS OLD. Roxane Serintas with her two-month-old baby inside an evacuation center. Photo from Serintas

ONLY TWO MONTHS OLD. Roxane Serintas with her two-month-old baby inside an evacuation center.

Photo from Serintas


The lockdown that started on March 15 drained their savings supposed to be spent on their baby, Roxane said. Since then, they have had to ask for help from her mother.
 

Iyong kaunting ipon na inipon-ipon ko para sa kapanganakan ko sana, ang nangyari, nagastos din namin bago pa ako manganak,” she said. “Humihingi kami ng tulong sa nanay ko na nagbibigay naman, pero ngayon wala na rin kasi nagkagipitan na lahat.” 

(The measly savings I had for my giving birth, we already spent even before I gave birth. We asked help from my mother who helped us, but not anymore because everyone's having a hard time financially.)  

Her husband, an on-call electrician who used to bring home P1,500 ($30) to P2,000 ($40) a week, was looking forward to resuming his work once GCQ started. In fact, on the day the fire broke out, he was called out to fix an air-conditioning unit – the first in a very long time.  

In the morning of June 1, Roxane visited her mother-in-law who lived nearby. It was a really hot day, she recalled, too hot for baby Kaylee to spend inside their rented apartment on Block 37.  

They finally went home half past 5 pm. While walking, Roxane noticed that people were in a frenzy. Then she saw a huge billow of smoke. Next thing she knew, the fire was a few homes away from theirs.  

Ang nadatnan namin, malaki na yung apoy kaya iyong nabitbit ko lang, iyong anak ko at ang mga papeles niya,” she recalled. “Iyong gatas, diaper, wala. Pati iyong mineral water, wala na kaming naitabi.”

(I just saw a huge fire already so I was only able to get my baby and some of her important documents. We weren’t able to save milk or diaper, or anything else. Even mineral water. We weren't able to set aside anything.)  

Because of the chaos, Roxane experienced bleeding from her caesarean incision. But she didn’t go to the hospital anymore, she had a baby to take care of. 

Roxane and her small family will probably spend a long time in the evacuation center, she said. Only a thin piece of a playmat and a blanket separate two-month old Kaylee from the floor of the hallway they will have to call home for now.

Roxane admitted she has no idea how to recover from the tragedy. Their apartment, made entirely of wood, burned to the ground. They have no money anymore. 

Sa ngayon, nagpapatulong pa ako sa nanay ko kung paano,” she said. “Wala ako maisip pa kasi talagang litong-lito na ang utak ko simula kagabi pa.

(Right now, I'm still asking the help of my mother. But I honestly cannot think of anything yet because since last night my mind has been such a mess.)  

CROWD. Victims take shelter at the Addition Hills Integrated School on June 2, 2020. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

CROWD. Victims take shelter at the Addition Hills Integrated School on June 2, 2020.

Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

Saved from fire, but still at a loss

Yhamz Toling’s family was one of the thousands quick on their feet when the fire started on Monday afternoon, June 1. They dragged their appliances out of their home through the narrow alleys and into the safety of the main road.

There weren’t much to save anyway from the small apartment she rents for P5,000 ($100) a month with 4 other people – her husband, cousin, a sibling, and brother-in-law. At night, they slept on the floor nearly touching the kitchen sink, praying the cooking ware would not topple on their heads while they were deep in slumber.

Yhamz's living situation, like all her neighbors, was a disaster waiting to happen. But since residing in Barangay Addition Hills in 2015, all her family experienced had been close calls. The massive fire incident on the first day of the GCQ was no different. 

But Yhamz felt and knew too well how hard things would be for her neighbors who lost their homes. She knew the hardships brought about by the lockdown, the problems they faced as they lost their livelihood, and the ordeal of having to beg for any assistance from government. 

Yhamz, too, was dealing with the same things, after all. She was only two months into her job as a safety officer in a construction site when the lockdown began. Her husband is a taxi driver and wasn’t able to work, too.

Kakaumpisa ko lang sa trabaho tapos nag-lockdown na, kaya walang-wala talagang ipon,” she said. “Walang trabaho, walang kita, kaya masyadong mahirap talaga.” (Because the lockdown started not long after I started working, I wasn't able to save anything. No work, no pay, that's why it's really been difficult.)

Having received relief goods only once over the last 3 months, Yhamz and her family had to tighten even more their already tight belts. At first, they rationed what they received. Then they ate only one full meal during lunch, resorting to taking only a few bites of bread or any other snack the rest of the day. 

CRAMPED. Yhamz Toring's family sleeps on the floor of a small apartment. Photo from Yhamz Toring

CRAMPED. Yhamz Toring's family sleeps on the floor of a small apartment.

Photo from Yhamz Toring

Their living space is cramped, she said. The summer heat made staying inside unbearable and suffocating. But they didn’t go out of the house, fearing both the virus and the penalties the local government could slap on them. Yhamz said they followed all the rules because they knew it was best for them. 

"Mahirap na dito kasi ang dami ngang kaso sa barangay namin, hindi mo alam kung sino ang may sakit o wala rin, kaya hindi na lang kami lumabas," she said. (It's hard because there are a lot of cases in our village and you don't know who's sick and who isn't, so we really just didn't go out.)

Like the victims of the fire, Yhamz is now still trying to get back on her feet. There is still no word from her employers whether or not she has a job to go back to. Her husband is one of the drivers not yet allowed to work due to reduced operations. 

She tries to find a balance between the relief of finally earning money again to put food on the table with the huge risks and dangers that come with the coronavirus – an invisible enemy that has infected millions of people globally.  

Kinakabahan kami na kapag bumalik na kami sa trabaho at wala pang vaccine, eh di buwis buhay naman, pero iniisip namin na kung tatambay lang kami, anong kakainin namin?” she said. “Kaya hati-hati iyong naramdaman namin. 

(We’re worried that when we go back to work and there’s no vaccine yet, will just risk our lives. But we think that if we just stay home, what will we eat? We’re really torn.)  

In the meantime, Jhonpaul, Roxane, and Yhamz can only hope government will hear their pleas. – Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO: Victims take shelter at the Addition Hills Integrated School on June 2, 2020 after a fire hits Barangay Addition Hills in Mandaluyong City on June 1. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

*$1 = P50

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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