Jason Dela Cruz, 30, had just dropped off his wife Manilyn, 30, and their two children on the driveway of the local supermarket when a magnitude-6.1 earthquake hit their hometown of Porac in Pampanga province in the northern Philippines.
He was driving their tricycle – a motorcycle-driven taxicab – to the car park when he heard the ominous rumble, turned his head, and witnessed the collapse of the four-storey building where he had just left his family.
In shock, Dela Cruz raced several blocks to his family’s home and fetched his father, Romeo, and his younger brother, Jerome, and the three men headed back to the ruined supermarket to figure out what to do.
“Our hearts were pounding,” said Jerome, who spoke with Al Jazeera in lieu of his brother, who was indisposed and unable to grant an interview.
When they got to the scene, people were at first stupefied at the pile of steel and concrete that used to be Chuzon Supermarket. Dela Cruz saw rescuers arriving and getting ready. He, his father and his brother could only look on, hoping for the best.
Just moments after the rescue operation began, searchers found Dela Cruz’s one-year-old daughter, Haylee. Dela Cruz immediately rushed his motionless child to the nearest hospital, where doctors could do nothing for her and where she was pronounced dead.
VIDEO: Philippine rescuers are scrambling to reach dozens of people feared buried under a building near Manila that collapsed in a powerful earthquake pic.twitter.com/tCq3OCd2Wd
— AFP news agency (@AFP) April 23, 2019
At nightfall, the Dela Cruzes were back at the site of the earthquake’s damage, eyeing every movement among the rubble. It was hours before rescuers found Manilyn crushed under a beam, one arm dangling and the other clutching her son, Jacob, who would have turned seven next month.
It took even longer for rescuers to extract Manilyn’s body from the heap. It was the middle of the night when they finally retrieved her, and afterwards the Dela Cruz men went home for a while to change their clothes. It was a sweltering summer night.
It was when they stepped into their home – where Jason Dela Cruz’s mother Sanita was waiting anxiously for news – that the grieving father broke down.
“We were all trying to be tough,” said Jerome Dela Cruz, “but I cannot imagine what my big brother is going through. He lost his family in one blow.”
The Chuzon Supermarket in Porac was the only major structure completely destroyed by the earthquakes that affected most of the Philippines’ northern Luzon island on Monday afternoon.
On Tuesday, the grocery store chain’s owner surrendered to investigators, who said the Porac branch’s construction permit indicated the building should have only had two floors, not four.
At least 16 people died in Monday’s earthquake, another 81 people were injured, and 14 remain missing, the Office of Civil Defense said in a statement.
When they returned to the site, Jason, Jerome and Romeo Dela Cruz waited yet more hours for rescuers to finally retrieve Jacob’s body. After that, it was another long wait at the mortuary. Jerome Dela Cruz had to supervise the process as morticians struggled to prepare the bodies of his niece, nephew and sister-in-law for the wake.
“It was excruciating,” he recalled. “They were so crushed, so disfigured, that I could barely recognise them.”
Filipino families often hold vigil for many days – even weeks – over their dead to make sure all relatives and friends get to pay their respects. This is also a way to delay the burial, regarded as the final farewell. But Jerome Dela Cruz said this cannot be done for Manilyn, Jacob and Haylee, because of their open, gaping wounds.
“It is all happening so fast, like a nightmare, only it is real,” he said.
Now, the family’s priority is to watch over the father who lost his wife and children. Dela Cruz said their plan is to never leave his brother Jason alone, and to take turns staying beside him when he sleeps. They worry about what he might do when it all sinks in and grief hits him, and he happens to be by himself.
“It’s all too much. We want to make sure my big brother will be OK.”