The loss and return of the Virgin of Penafrancia & the Colgante Bridge tragedy

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Part I: The Loss and Return of Our Lady of Penafrancia
by Totie Mesia and Mariso Ocampo
Posted by mesiamd at 9/19/2008

Bicolanos like the rest of the Filipinos are supposed to be happy people. We shun gloom, when it relates to the Penafrancia celebration. A diet of ginota’an na gulay, chili, and doses of wicked weather make our fiestas more fun. For each favor we ask the Virgin, we have a positive answer to hope for.

It was in 1981, nine years after the Colgante Bridge collapse that Ina’s image vanished. Carted away by burglars to the distress of the people, Ina’s icon became an object of a nationwide hunt. Prayers were said by the entire nation for the return of the old ebony image which could fetch a good sum as Imelda Marcos’ jewels from antique dealers like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Reports of malevolent portents and explicable signs occupied us, superstitious Bicolanos. But it wasn’t until unrelenting torrential rains flooded Manila that the image reappeared.

“What’s important is she’s back,” we were told. Although it was a crime to snatch the Virgin’s image, few seemed to know who took it. Punishing the robber(s) wasn’t a priority as some rumors flew that Imelda Marcos was involved.

The sight of bare-footed devotees piously walking the image back to her church brought home the popular message of “forgive and forget” which remained a core value of many us. Forgiving and putting aside foul memories of the theft were easy justifications of not doing anything to prosecute a crime. It stood on the way of bringing justice and closure to those who had been wronged.

“My son died looking for Ina,“ said Salvacion C. Neola of Naga City a few years before she passed away. Like everyone else, Neola, a widow and fervent Penafrancia devotee didn’t insist who was behind Ina’s disappearance> Her son Reynaldo, a Naga City policeman, met his death; his companions were seriously wounded searching for the icon. With little clarity to what really happened, we seemed to have lost a footnote of history and a chance to punish the crime.

Today, the Colgante tragedy where scores died while watching the Penafrancia river procession is an old tale just like the enigma of Ina’s disappearance. We recall the frenzy stirred by the bridge crashing down the river, the victims trapped in the pile of fractured timber resting on severed body parts in the water. More than a hundred drowned deep in the dark riverbed, making recovery and recognition difficult.

As told by Rufo Tuy Jr, the popular DZRB radio announcer, some met their demise when the bridge’s live electrical wirings snapped. As lights went dead, hysterical moms who heard of the tragedy acted like agitated hens, panicked by the immensity of the tragedy. Displayed in a local radio station for relatives to identify, piles of bodies of those who drowned and were crushed by the rushing crowd in stampede scared them. (to be continued…Part II: The Colgante Bridge Tragedy of 1972...) =0=

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