Theirs was a picture of a happy family.
Donna, the mother, was one of those few women who were really born for motherhood. She had a nurturing personality that could extend even beyond her own brood, a patience that could match that of a saint’s, and a protectiveness that was not unlike that of a mother bear to her cubs. Harold, the father, was the epitome of brute strength and dependability. He might be a man of few words, but he was a certified softie when it came to his kids. The four children — Diego, Helena, Lalaine and Gabby — were good and happy kids, undoubtedly the product of being raised in a home filled with love and boundless provisions of tender, loving care.
However, on the afternoon of August 19 nearly two years ago, their almost-perfect, little world came crashing down around them.
It was a Tuesday, an ordinary busy weekday for the Marcelos. Harold was about to drive to Manila for his everyday commute to work, Donna was rushing through her household chores before she had to attend to her small business, the three kids were hurriedly preparing for school, and Helena was already running late for her school field trip. She was a Tourism freshman at the Bulacan State University (BSU), and the said field trip in the historical town of San Miguel, aside from exempting her and the entire class from taking the final exam, would be an outside-of-the-classroom experience that she and her friends had been looking forward to. So, despite Donna’s apprehensions (dark clouds were looming over the horizon and cell phone signals were known to be weak in that remote part of Bulacan), Helena was bursting with excitement.
Donna was not a worrier by nature, but there was something about her daughter’s field trip that really gave her the creeps. She was not superstitious either, but her unease grew even more when at around noon, in the middle of loading their pile of dirty laundry into the washing machine, she heard a chilling voice whisper to her ear, “Mamamatay si Helena.” She immediately tried to call her daughter, but to no avail. Refusing to let her unwarranted yet growing fear paralyze her, she went on with her schedule for the day. After all, what could possibly go wrong with a bunch of students simply visiting a handful of historical sites in their own province? And the group would be under the strict watch of their teachers, for goodness’ sake! She was just being foolish, Donna thought to herself.
Along the North Luzon Expressway, aboard a bus bound for QC, she saw terribly dark clouds – the darkest she had ever seen – completely cloaking the Bocaue skyline. However, when they reached Marilao, the town right after Bocaue, the sky was surprisingly clear. But when they got to the next town, Meycauayan, the ominous clouds were back. Donna considered it creepy and foreboding that, when she got to her destination, she tried once more to give Helena a call. But, again, her call wouldn’t get through.
All these happened at around 3:00 in the afternoon.
At around 6pm, while waiting for her last client for the day, she received a phone call from the dean of Helena’s school. Donna’s reaction was instantaneous. Her heart started to pound, her hands began to tremble, and her mind reeled from all the negative possibilities that could have prompted that call. When the dean confirmed her worst fear that Helena had, indeed, been involved in an accident, her knees wobbled and unbidden tears poured down her face.
In spite of her muddled mental state, she remembered to do one thing. She made one request to the dean — that her husband not be notified. Harold had just suffered a minor stroke, and Donna did not want to risk another one.
She got in touch with a fellow BSU mom, and they agreed to meet in Tabang. Her trip back to Bulacan seemed to take forever that she found herself wishing she could fly instead. That was how badly she wanted to be with her daughter. Helena might be in a hospital right that very moment – alone, afraid, in pain. Her daughter needed her.
But, when they reached San Miguel, she was not ushered in to a hospital as she expected.
They were at a morgue!
Her chaotic mind couldn’t comprehend what her eyes were seeing. Helena — her Helena — was a beautiful, bubbly girl, whose hearty laugh was infectious, whose stories were never-ending, whose moods were as erratic as the weather, and whose appetite for food was phenomenal. Her Helena was full of life, with eyes constantly twinkling with mischief, with fingers always itching to poke her to get her attention, and with lips that could easily transform her face with a simple smile. Her Helena was her tail and shadow, whose mission in life was to follow her wherever she went.
The girl in front of her, however, was cold and muddied and mangled. She bore signs of deep pain and suffering. She looked pitiful and unloved. She was lifeless.
Helena, or Gang-Gang to her family, was one of the 180 BSU Tourism students that went to San Miguel that day for a field trip. It was supposed to be an educational, safe and fun activity for the kids. The parents were made to sign a waiver prior to the trip, but they were not aware that the perilous trek to the Madlum Cave, Madlum River and Mt. Manalmon was part of it. Only after the field trip had turned into a horrible tragedy that took seven young lives were the anomalies and lapses discovered.
WHAT HAPPENED IN MADLUM (Based on firsthand accounts)
On their way to their destination, one of the other groups was warned by a local whom they happened to pass by. They were told to be extra careful because it had been a while since the last time the mountain took someone’s life. Apparently, Mt. Manalmon had that dreadful reputation among locals. “Pagbubuwis ng buhay” (sacrificing one’s life to save others) was how they referred to it. That warning, coupled with the gloomy skies, left some of the students a bit troubled.
According to Hannah and Danielle, two of the students who survived the tragedy, the buses could only take them up to a designated drop-off point. From there, they had to ride a tricycle, then take a short hike to the bridge that would take them to the orientation area. There, they were made to line up and then grouped according to their sections, with around 40 students each. With a total of five tour guides – 3 locals and 2 Tourism students hired by the tour agency – the 180 students started their perilous trek. (They would learn later on that the three teachers who were with them on that trip opted to stay behind in the nearby sari-sari store, allegedly to enjoy a videoke session).
After Hannah and Danielle’s group reached the Madlum Cave, they had to exit through a small escape route that could fit only one person at a time. They passed through Madlum River which, by then, was just ankle-deep. From there, they began their ascent to the mountain which was steep, slippery, muddy, rocky and rugged. Torrential rains only made the trek more difficult and treacherous. They were soaked to the bone and their teeth were chattering from the chilly air. They could only walk single file, so there was nothing or no one to hold on to. Huffing, puffing, panting, slipping and falling, putting one foot in front of the other became an arduous task.
When they were almost to the summit, the local guide advised them against climbing any further as the terrain would already be impossible to tread. Heaving a collective sigh of relief, the children promptly moved to make their descent.
When they emerged from the mountain at around 3pm (the same time that Donna was having a creepy experience in NLEX), it was not raining. The water in the river was still shallow. The two, along with ten other classmates and one local tour guide (at that point, the second half of their group was lagging behind, leaving them with just that one tour guide), had started crossing the river and were already halfway through when they noticed the water level rising and the current getting stronger. The guide ordered them to stop right there, atop a huge flat rock, while he ran to the orientation area to fetch his two companions. The students obediently waited.
When he returned, he was able to pull Danielle and another one to safety. He would have gone back for the others, but in just a matter of seconds, the rampaging water had already risen to an alarming level.
Right before her eyes, Danielle saw how her friends were huddled right in the middle of the river – afraid, screaming, weeping, crying for help. Another strong surge of water hit them, separating and scattering the group. Three students were able to swim towards the riverbank before they were saved by the tour guides and a mountaineer passing by.
However, seven students, including Helena, did not have such luck.
THE SEVEN YOUNG SOULS TAKEN TOO SOON
Michelle “Mitch” Bonzo
Her friends describe Mitch as “malditang mabait.” Danielle will always remember her as her protector. Mitch and her boyfriend, Hiro Mallari, were a romantic tandem dubbed as Hiro-Mitch. They became famous campus figures and a social media sensation, just like their idol, Jamich. Their tragic love story was featured in Maalaala Mo Kaya a month after Mitch’s passing.
Sean Rodney Alejo
Sean was a volleyball varsity player of BSU. His classmates and friends knew him as being perpetually jolly. His favorite line was, “Ang sarap kayang maging masaya!” He was also the student who saved the life of a fellow classmate during the Madlum River tragedy. It was during his attempt to save another that he was swept away by the raging waters. Sean was awarded the Gintong Kabataang Bayani 2014 by the Provincial Government of Bulacan for his heroic feat.
Mikhail “Miks” Alcantara
“Mik-Mik” to his family, Miks was the youngest in a brood of three. He and his sister, Sarah, were so close that, only recently, she even watched a concert of Miks’ favorite band, the Silent Sanctuary. She was able to request the band to give a message for her brother.
Also the youngest among three sisters, Jeanette was known in school to be quiet, demure and studious. And like most of her friends, she was a volleyball player.
The eldest among the Navarros’ three children, Madel would always be “Madie” to her family in Hagonoy. For her friends, though, she was the most “kalog,” “mataray,” and diligent in their group. She was the one who would always go to class prepared and with homework done.
Maiko, the 28-year-old former member of GMA 7’s EB Babes, was her classmates’ “ate”. She was the one who would tirelessly remind her friends and classmates about activities and other assigned tasks. Among the seven fatalities, her body was the last one to be recovered. She was survived by her husband and her son.
A friendly gal, Helena was hailed Ms. BSU 2014. Her parents raised her and her three siblings to touch and inspire as many lives as they could. One of her family’s annual reach-out projects was to visit the Bethany Orphanage in Guiguinto, Bulacan to share whatever they can with the children there.
COPING AND HEALING
It was in August last year, in time for the commemoration of the seven students’ first death anniversary, that the Office of the Ombudsman released its verdict on the administrative case filed against the BSU officials. All nine respondents were found guilty of gross misconduct and neglect over the horrendous tragedy.
Meanwhile, the field trip survivors are still trying to put the experience behind them. Sometimes, they are able to. But, most of the time, they are suddenly assailed by the memory of their friends being swept away by the tumultuous waters of the river; they can still hear their cries for help. The mere thought of going for a swim could make them shudder in fear. Rainy days can easily induce a gloomy or pensive mood, or worse, cause them bouts of depression. The sight of a group of friends having fun and laughing over silly things could remind them of their own friends — now gone from their lives forever.
The grieving families are also trying to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Donna and Harold have to be strong for their three other children. They need to work and put up a strong façade, even if all they want to do is lock themselves up in Helena’s room and pretend that she is still alive: to put their arms around her, cuddle with her, laugh with her, talk to her — even just for the last time.
They didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
The pain doesn’t go away. They don’t think it ever will. Sometimes, the families and friends of the seven students feel the latter’s presence, perhaps reminding them that they need to be strong especially for their search for justice. Only then — when truth finally prevails and they obtain the justice the children deserve — and through God’s healing grace would they be able to completely accept what happened to their dear departed. Indeed, it may be true that what happened in Madlum was an accident. But it was an accident that could have been easily prevented, if only the people that the parents and their children put their trust in did what was expected of them — to protect the lives of everyone in their custody. At all costs.
Life truly is short and precarious. Today, we might be enjoying the company of family and friends. But tomorrow, well, nobody really knows what it would bring. Each life is precious, and it’s just ours on a loan. We don’t know when God would take it back. So, let us make each minute with them count so that, when the time comes, there will never be any regrets.
For GMA 7’s report on the tragedy, click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMAikxpznTI.
Correction: Reporter Kara David said that there were more than 40 students in their batch. It should have been “in their section.” Around 180 BSU Tourism students, mostly freshmen, were in that field trip.