Filipino scientists

[OPINION] Remembering RSP, Norman and Jessie – geoscientists for the people

Mario Aurelio

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[OPINION] Remembering RSP, Norman and Jessie – geoscientists for the people
Excellent geoscientists Raymundo S. Punongbayan, Jessie A. Daligdig, and Norman M. Tungol are remembered for their dedication to serve the people

April 28, 2005 saw the demise of three dedicated geoscientists who risked their lives for the sake of the people. A few minutes before nine in the morning, 19 years ago on Sunday, April 28, Raymundo S. Punongbayan, Jessie A. Daligdig and Norman M. Tungol, together with two other scientists of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) and four Philippine Air Force )PAF) personnel, all perished when the PAF helicopter they were in crashed in the Sierra Madre Mountains over Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija, while returning to base after performing an aerial survey over the town of Dingalan in Aurora. 

Ar-Es-Pi, that was how Dr. Raymundo S. Punongbayan (RSP) was fondly called by both his contemporaries and students. He was my professor in Geology 112 – Structural Geology, dreaded by many, including myself, as a killer subject in the BS Geology program of the University of the Philippines (UP).

RSP was infamously known to be the teacher who gave an entire class a grade of “incomplete” at the end of a semester, my batch included. Despite this, it was to him that I provided several years later, a copy of the first prints of my dissertation in, of all fields, Structural Geology! 

I would maintain links with RSP professionally, sometimes to debate over concepts in structural geology. At other times, when he would explain to me how his signature resembled the profile of Taal Volcano, or when he would humor friends that the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, was meant to celebrate his birthday on June 13.

More seriously, his popularity peaked when he and his team, in cooperation with geoscientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), were able to undertake anticipatory studies prior to the eruption, leading to relatively minimal damage and casualties, despite being categorized as the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. 

To date, this remains among the best success stories of volcano disaster mitigation and management, discussed in conferences, and taught in schools around the world. RSP became a household name and some friends were convinced he would be a sure-win candidate if he ran for senator the year after. 

Ill-fated chopper ride

I went to college with Norman. But he opted to graduate later, giving more importance to his ideology, sacrificing some school years so he could contribute in making the lives of marginalized countrymen more bearable, at least for a while. “Lakay” Jessie was an entire college generation ahead, but we found common ground in the studies we did: studying active faults and understanding how to minimize the disastrous effects of earthquakes by a technique called “trenching.” 

In the latter part of 2004, coastal towns in central and southern Luzon including Dingalan in Aurora, and Infanta and Real in Quezon took the brunt of flashfloods, landslides and debris flows brought about by a series of typhoons culminating in December. Survivors were left homeless. Tasked to provide relocation sites, local governments needed technical assistance. 

Marker in memory of dedicated scientists, Drs. Ray Punongbayan, Jessie Daligdig, Norman Tungol and colleagues who all perished in a helicopter crash in the Sierra Madre Mountains on April 28, 2005, serving the people. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ramon Quebral. 

Phivolcs was among those government agencies with a mandate to provide technical assistance to find suitable relocation sites. Relocations sites should be at a minimum, safe from the hazards already suffered by the victims. In general, relocation sites should be located on high ground, but at same time away from active faults and slopes prone to landslides. 

Geologists provide the critical expertise in evaluating suitable relocation sites. RSP, drawing from his experience as Phivolcs director, made sure the services of geologists were availed. He also preferred commencing assessment work with a bird’s eye view.

Hence, the aerial survey, albeit ill-fated. 

More than their being excellent geoscientists, RSP, Norman and Jessie are remembered for their dedication to serve the people. –

Mario A. Aurelio, PhD is a professor at the National Institute of Geological Sciences – University of the Philippines – UP NIGS. Like Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan, he is a structural geologist who includes assessment of geologic hazards among his research interests. Among the subjects he teaches is Geology 112 – Structural Geology

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