Sunday, January 12, 2020 was supposed to be a unique bonding experience in Tagaytay for the family of JR Andrade.
Taal -the nearby volcano that has defined the view from the ridge of Tagaytay in the last couple of decades- had other plans, and the Andrades had a front row view to a natural disaster unfolding. Over the next couple of hours, they would have to evacuate with hellish traffic, slippery road conditions, zero visibility, and everything else in between.
But first, let's wind back the clock to that morning. It's not hard to imagine how excited the Andrades were. They had been planning to drive up to the cooler weather and majestic views offered by Tagaytay, but instead of just staying in a hotel room overlooking Taal lake and its namesake volcano, they wanted something different: they wanted to do a bit of glamping.
They booked themselves at 8 Suites in Tagaytay for it; the hotel has a grassy lawn where a tent can be set up, and they can have their two kids have a nice outdoor experience roasting marshmallows and working a grill.
Frankly it sounds like perfect little overnight getwatay. If you wanted a true camping experience, you'll have to venture out on a trek in the woods that could take hours, with heavy gear, bags, and lots of bugs to keep you company. But if you don't have the time and are travelling with kids or don't drive a 4x4 then this is a great option, and you're still in civilization with all the creature comforts nearby.
Something, however, was already wrong.
“We were hearing rumbles when we were still at 8 Suites,” recounts JR. “We think it may have been a combination of the impending rain, or the volcanic thing.”
For the better part of a year, Taal volcano has been under observation by PHIVOLCS; the government agency tasked to study and monitor volcanic and seismic activity. They've been very busy in the last two months because of the earthquakes happening in Mindanao. But Taal requires quite a bit of attention because of its proximity to the National Capital Region. If it erupts, it can seriously impact Metro Manila.
At 1:10 PM, it did.
“We were having lunch, and then it erupted,” said JR. “The staff initially said it's still safe, but we were already escorted to the tent at around 3:00 PM.”
We're not geological experts, but the eruption -by our understanding- was initially a phreatic one, meaning one that was driven by a sudden explosion of steam because the magma came into contact with the water at the surface. That sent up ash and dust high up into the atmosphere; by all accounts, the first time that Taal did so since 1977, and was much more sudden.
By 4:00 PM, the Andrades were already worried, as the electricity was cut and the smell of sulfur from the volcano became more prominent. The manager of the hotel informed them that PHIVOLCS has raised the alarm to Alert Level 3, and so they decided to pack up and leave. At 4:30 PM, they headed out.
They had a few options to take to reach their home in Paranaque, but the logical route would be to take Santa Rosa road to the newly (and partially) opened CALAX and onto SLEX. The problem is that everyone else had the same idea. While JR and his family planned to stay until today (Monday) and drive down when everyone was at work, they were forced to drive down on a Sunday; if you've been to Tagaytay on weekends, you'll know that Sunday afternoon is the worst time to go down from the ridge. It's basically rush hour, but this time it was an exodus.
So JR and his family were very much stuck on the heavy traffic, but that was further compounded by the ashfall. Metro Manila was experiencing ash that blanketed cars, whick was really more of a cleaning problem. Closer to the volcano, however, the ashfall was much heavier and much more dangerous.
“Literally, visibility was zero at times,” said JR. “It was the craziest driving scenario of my life.”
The father of two isn't a stranger to such driving situations. In the last couple of years, he has been based in Qatar, and anyone who has been to the Middle East for a significant amount of time would know that driving in a sandstorm is very similar. He also had to drive with storm chasers during Typhoon Milenyo when he was working for one of our country's largest TV networks... the one with the “heart” as their sigil. This one, JR says, is a different level.
Around 6:00 PM, the darkness had truly set in, and driving became even more dangerous. Toss in the rain, the slippery roads because of the mud, the volcanic lightning and earthquakes, and it's not hard to imagine how scary it was. Their car wasn't rugged in any way either: it's a ninth generation Honda Civic sedan. But JR and his family had no choice but to stick it out. Any parent would be worried about their family, but thankfully they kept their kids calm; they were innocent to what was happening around them, and decided to sleep halfway through the drive. That put JR at ease.
But then another problem started to occur: the ash was having a very bad effect on the visibility through the windshield. Visibility was so poor that JR says he was having problems following vehicles ahead. In times of bad visibility, the best trick is to follow another vehicle and hope that they can actually see. And the fact that the blackout on Santa Rosa road made things worse as all the street lights were out.
“I was just following the red taillights of the vehicle ahead, but on one instance the vehicle ahead sped up, so much so that he vanished in the distance,” recalls the father of two. “It was so dark and my driving was so slow because I was trying to make out the road.”
JR found another light in the distance, and it was heading towards their car. Fearing danger, he stopped the car, opened his window, and peeked out. Apparently, his family's Civic was already on the oncoming lane. Zero lights, zero visibility, and all the road markings and reflectors were undoubtedly covered in ash. Had he not stopped, they would have most definitely crashed.
Windshield wipers were of no help at this point. As with off-roading in the desert, a vehicle's wipers need water to function properly and there's a very finite amount of water in an average windshield washer tank. Once depleted, you'll have to either douse your windshield with bottled water, refill your tank, or run the wipers dry; the last one is the worst thing you can do because you'll just end up scratching your windshield.
Thankfully, JR says he found the help he needed while they were driving down Santa Rosa road.
“One time I had no choice but to stop and use my hazards because I really couldn't see out the windshield anymore,” said JR. “Then, out of nowhere, another vehicle saw us because I was standing outside the car asking for help. The Good Samaritans in that vehicle handed me a 2-liter bottle of water so I can clear my windshield.”
The relief in that father's words were clear. And all along the way, he says residents were also pitching in. Roadside residents all along the route were throwing water onto oncoming cars, hosing them down, and even offering to clean the windshields so motorists can drive to safety. Bayanihan, it seems, is alive and well.
Several hours later, JR and his family were able to get onto CALAX which was just as badly affected by the heavy ashfall. SLEX, JR says, was like a scene from Dante's Peak; a dark and dangerous hell on earth.
But just past midnight earlier today, the Andrade family were finally home and out of danger. Their total travel time from Tagaytay to their home in Paranaque: 8 hours.
There are many lessons to be picked up from the experience of the Andrades. If you're in Tagaytay or any other locale with a volcano nearby (dormant or not) be ready to leave right away; the sooner you can be on the move, the better. Your vehicle should always be in tip top shape at all times and ready because the elements might not cooperate; a car with spotty maintenance can let you down at the worst times. If visibility is a problem, find a safe place to stop to either ride it out or, in the case of volcanic ash, clear your windshield. Lastly, be sensible, be attentive, and exercise extraordinary caution.
JR says he, his wife, and two kids made the trip up to Tagaytay for an experience that would bond and solidify their relationship after a very recent family tragedy. They did get what they wanted, perhaps even more than what they intended, but not in the way that anyone would have ever imagined.