Wet streets, smoke in the air, burnt houses, everyone tired, that’s the scene that awaited me once I was on site of the recent Sta. Cruz Manila fire. 

Last August 3, I was just lounging around my dormitory near UST. Student council activities were delayed so I had nothing better to do but to relax and study. My roommate informed me that there had been a fire in a community a few minutes away from us, but I never thought I’d be involved in any way. I’ve always wanted to help during disasters so, when the Animal Kingdom Foundation senior volunteers called for people to survey the state of the Sta Cruz, Manila fire I jumped at the chance to help. 

Upon arriving on site, I saw burnt buildings, people trying to salvage building materials, and animals either roaming around or tied to their owner’s stalls. Beside the burnt remains was the evacuation center,  a small covered court lined up with a few tents.. Although we’re still in a pandemic, people no longer cared for the protocols, the space was hot and cramped so they had no choice but to make do with the situation. 

At first glance, the tents at the covered court looked spacious but we were dismayed to hear that each tent housed around 20 people including what remained of their things. Pets were not allowed in the tents, so residents had no choice but to tie them up, send them to relatives, or let them roam free. Aside from that, the area was incredibly smoky, so much so that a few minutes there would cause any person’s lungs to burn. After checking the situation at the covered court, we headed into the heart of the disaster, everything was in ashes. 

I had never seen anything so disturbing, there was nothing left but rubble. The residents guided us and pointed out where their houses used to stand and recounted how quickly the fire had spread. Every person was running and panicked trying to save what they could. People looking for family members as they gather their money, livelihood products, and appliances. 

Pet owners desperately tried to locate and calm their confused animals while the fire raged on around them. It was the worst unforgettable experience anyone could endure. For pet owners, their grief could be summed up in the sentiments of one of the residents who said “ang aso pag minahal mo parang tao na yan. Pag namatay sila hindi ko alam gagawin ko. Pamilya ko na sila. Masakit” (When you love a dog, it’s the same feeling as when you love a human. If they die, I don’t know what I’ll do. They are my family. It hurts.) As we listened we could only imagine the feelings the unfortunate pet owners experienced when they couldn’t find their beloved pets or worse, when they saw the burnt remains of their companions. Tears could only channel their grief, happy memories could only dim the pain for a fleeting moment. They were gone. Nothing could change that. 

After the pet owners spoke about their horrifying experience, some of the residents brought to our attention a tri-colored cat they had named “Ghostrider”.  So named because she had exited the fire in flames and sustained burnt paws and a few grazes on her body. The residents were amused that the cat survived in spite of the situation and likened her to a demon ghost rider who couldn’t be killed. 

As we were wondering what we could do next, another cat peeked out from the upstairs remains of a house. He was severely burnt and weak. His face unrecognizable, a resident who was looking for her cat, Wamus had no idea if the burnt cat was him. Since our job that day was recon and none of us knew how to handle such delicate rescues, we took photos of the two cats and waited for the directives of our seniors. Once we got the signal for the rescue of the two cats we immediately set to work. 

The burnt cat was difficult to rescue since it was dangerous to climb up the stairs of the house but luckily one of the male residents helped us by standing on a chair and grabbing the cat while everyone else called out the cat’s name to draw him out of his hiding spot. Once we got him down, I heard Wamus’ owner sadly saying that although she was glad that this cat survived, she had to say goodbye because she couldn’t afford to take care of him with his current state. 

After the burnt cat was secured, the team pondered on who would try taking Ghostrider because she was growling at us earlier. Since we really needed to get them to the vet I decided to be the first to try taking her. Normally, cats don’t like me because they feel my wariness. I don’t like the cats’ claws or their capricious natures so I don’t approach them as much as I approach dogs. However, I had rescued a few cats before while my teammates were first time rescuers. I also knew that cats usually let me help them when they need it but once they recovered they’d hiss and hate on me again so there was a good chance Ghostrider would let me take her and I was right. Once the rescues were safely in the cage we sent them to the vet and headed home. 

The following day, August 4, two of us from the original recon team were back with some senior volunteers and a few first-timers for the relief operations and pet feeding. It was quick work giving pet food and a few human necessities to the people in Sta. Cruz. Pet owners were delighted that they no longer had to think of food for their furry friends for a while and some even recounted their stories for our new companions. We were even pointed to a resident who was the known cat rescuer of their area. 

After the relief operations, we began pet feeding. It was fun albeit tiring roaming around the streets feeding the dogs and cats to rescue. A few kids even happily followed us pointing out where we could find more animals to feed. During all that, one of the volunteers found a kitten, who we named Apopoy or Apoy to symbolize him rising through the ashes. After the feeding we quickly rushed Apoy to the vet and a senior volunteer, Ms. Jade took him home. Sad to say Apopoy passed the following day, but we took heart that in his last moments he had a home and he felt loved. 

All in all, my first relief operation was a very touching experience. Things I’ve only seen on television became all too real. Walking through the ashes, listening to the stories, giving our time to just mourn and reminisce with the residents of Sta Cruz will forever be a life changing experience. 

Experience of other volunteers

“The relief operations in Sta Cruz Manila was an amazing experience. I felt sad that the people lost their homes and some didn’t have a chance to save their pets. The most touching moment for me was when the mother of Marcky Caguiran recounted how she put the safety of her pets above her material possessions. As nanay spun her tale, you could clearly see that she loved her pets and thought of them as her children.”

- Cindy Urbano, lead volunteer recon team

“Volunteering for the recon and relief ops was heartwarming because I was able to help the residents of Sta Cruz, Manila. At the same time I felt sad because of their poor condition. It was also an eye opener for me that in times of disaster and calamity, the safety and welfare of animals are some of the least prioritized by the people. That’s why I’m glad to be part of the recon and relief ops. I was reassured that the animals in critical condition would be taken care of and the needs of the animals left in the area would be provided for.”

- Nate James, volunteer recon and rescue team

“It was actually my first time taking part in a relief operation. I’ve always wanted to join one, and I’m really grateful to AKF for giving me the opportunity to help in my own little way. My experience during the relief op was honestly tiring but I genuinely wouldn’t have it any other way. I went home feeling fulfilled and in utmost bliss knowing that I somehow gave hope to our furbabies. Witnessing how the furfamilies risked their own safety just to secure their pets made me realize that not all people are cruel to animals. I’m very thankful to those who tried and to those who never stopped caring for the animals. I take pride in knowing that I stand by the people that willingly became the voice for the voiceless.”

- Mary Mangcao, volunteer relief ops team

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