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Senor Moments | The 1964 San Pedro fire

There were two major conflagrations that changed the face of Davao City – one was the fire that razed most of Uyanguren St. (now Magsaysay); the other was the 1964 San Pedro Street fire. I was studying at that time at the Ateneo de Manila, so I missed all those disasters. So I asked my GS/HS classmate, Perbs Balchand, to write about the event. The Balchand family owns the LILA DEPARTMENT STORE now the only Indian-owned bazaar in San Pedro – a street with Indian emporiums like Big Chief Bazaar and others. So here is Perbs’ first-hand eye-witness narrative of the 1964 San Pedro Fire:

On February 10th 1964 it started at about 7:20 A.M., a fire started along Anda Street and razed six blocks of Davao City’s commercial section. We learned about it shortly after, as there was a commotion at the back of our house which was about 200 meters from the fire’s origin. When our cook Marcial noticed it first and shouted “Fire!”, some of us rushed to our back window and saw how close it was.

On Monday morning, my sisters Lachmi and Radhka had left for school, but returned when they learned about the fire. My mom had just gone for a shower but dressed promptly again. Padma, Kishu and I were getting ready for school. My nephew, Naresh, was only two months old while his brother Kishore was two years old. Marcial took the two children downstairs, passed through the store, and took them to Rizal Park. The parents, Godha who was sterilizing her feeding bottles, and Bheru panicked on not seeing their children. When they went to the store they learned that Marcial and our maid Pacing had already brought the kids to the park.

My uncle Pessu, My sister Padma and I got two suitcases and stuffed them with items we wanted to save. Kishu ran down in his pajamas, while I wore some clothes over mine.

We had a two-feet-tall plastic doll with the face of a pussycat. Kishu slit the stomach and dropped coins into it, thus making it his piggy bank. It was heavy with the coins he had saved over a long time. He was taking it down with him. As he was leaving the store, Thaku told him to leave it behind, and just get it when we returned after the fire. Kishu was of two minds, whether to take it or leave it but, he decided to leave it.

Ten minutes after we noticed the fire, a fireman knocked at our door and instructed us to vacate the store. The fire was only a hundred meters away. We all left the store and stayed a while across the street. We hoped and prayed that the fire would be controlled before it reached our store.

By 8:00 the fire had reached our store. We were greatly saddened when we saw our store and house go up in flames. When it became quite hot across the street, we moved to the park.

After a while we were not certain that the park would still be a safe haven, so someone suggested that we go to the Ateneo College in Jacinto.

I surveyed the site of the fire’s origin and its spread. It started at Davao Superette, a store located near Lyric Theater close to the corner of Anda and Rizal Streets. Sold products of Namarco, a government corporation that made groceries available at lower prices.

The fire had spread in three directions, northwest, southwest, southeast, and razed a hospital and six blocks of prime commercial buildings. It was threatening to burn the ICC auditorium but fortunately spent its fury before it could do that.

My sister and I went to Claveria Street to hire two jeeps. While we waited for the jeeps, the Chinese owner of a refreshment parlor approached us and offered us free snacks and drinks. After partaking of them, we proceeded, grateful that we were able to break our fast.

We reached the Ateneo after 10:30 am, unloaded our bags, and kept them in a room in the old building. Before noon, Mrs. Soling Duterte, who was a regular customer, a friend of the family, came with some clothes. We were surprised at how quickly she located us and brought us things we needed urgently. That was very kind of her. Her son Rodrigo had come to our store with his mom a few times, first as a grade schooler, and later as a high school student. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that he would one day be our President.

An hour or two later, Mrs. Pelagia Olivar and her husband, Major Salvador Olivar, both of the Police Department and our regular customers, came and offered that we stay at their residence in Lanzona Subdivision. We really needed a place to stay for the night and thereafter. We accepted their gracious offer. She also offered that we choose clothes from the stocks she got from our store, as well as from her own stocks. Thus, we did not have to go shopping anymore. We stayed with them for about a week. We marvelled at how God sent angels to us in our hour of need.

We looked for a store space for our business and found one in Cabaguio Building, just opposite Davao Theatre, along Claveria Street. In a few days, we occupied the mezzanine as our sleeping quarters. About twelve of us slept on beddings, side by side without elbow room, for more than a week until we rented an apartment of Bobby and Letty Teves, about 50 meters behind our store, and just beside the residence of Atty. Manuel Cabaguio.

We were insured for only about sixty percent of the merchandise that went up in flames. And it took two or three months before our claims were finally paid.

Disasters present opportunities for heroes to come forth. Antonio “Tonying” Uy, whose family owned the Davao New Life Trading which went up in flames, instead of going to their shop to save some goods, went instead to Brokenshire Memorial Hospital to rescue the patients. Eduardo “Momong” Robillo, put on his scout uniform and pushed a big air conditioning unit out of Men Seng Hotel, at the corner of San Pedro and Legaspi Streets. Kishu’s classmate Billy Aportadera gave Kishu used clothes which fit him perfectly. The MIC Sisters, who operated the Our Lady of Good Counsel Dormitory, allowed the family of Genette Ledesma to stay at their dorm for about a month, until they found a permanent place to stay.

As the Psalmist said,
“…we went through fire and flood,
but now You have brought us
to a place of safety.” (Ps.66,12b)

After a year or two, we moved to the Palma Gil Apartments, behind Apo View Hotel. It was administered by George Palma Gil, and later by Pio Palma Gil.

With the eyes of faith, we see that God was always there to lead us through straits, sending us friends to help, and opening needed opportunities.

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