Lake Maughan tragedy: 17 years later, case still not closed

T’BOLI, South Cotabato(MindaNews/5 Sept) – Brothers Martin Jr. and Marlon Faba are fresh military graduates, holding start-up ranks in their assignment at the Davao region. Their sister Margie, on the other hand, works as a factory worker in Manila.

Purok Survivor in Barangay New Dumangas in T'boli, South Cotabato, one of the relocation sites of the September 6, 1995 Lake Maughan tragedy, now has a mini-market to serve the needs of its residents. MindaNews photo by Bong S. SarmientoThe trio miraculously survived a harrowing experience that continues to haunt people in this sleepy town like a nightmare in the dead of the night.

Exactly 17 years ago today (Thursday, Sept. 6), in pitch darkness, the then two young boys and the girl escaped the fangs of death with a stroke of luck and grit.

With their aunt Genelyn Palabrica-Faba, they were caught in the middle of rampaging waters in the village of New Dumangas here. They were lucky that two giant trees uprooted by the hellish current formed into a V-shape, protecting them from being washed downstream as it created a temporary island.

As the oldest then and already a high school senior student, Faba knew that in several minutes, the giant trees would come down crashing on them as the turbulent waters continued their onslaught. With time ticking against them, she recalled they all braved the thundering waist-deep water to reach a higher ground a few meters away. The three children clung to her, and it helped that Faba was a high school swimmer.

“I think an angel saved us,” she told MindaNews almost in tears.

But seven of Faba’s immediate family members—her parents and five siblings—were not as lucky. To date, her parents’ and a brother’s cadavers remain missing in the worst catastrophe that hit South Cotabato ever since—the Lake Maughan tragedy on September 6, 1995.

Lake Maughan, nestled atop the dormant Mt. Parker here, overflowed on that ill-fated day, sending an estimated 30 million cubic meters of water downstream.

Based on the official records of the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, the flashflood killed at least 53 people, 14 of them still missing, and damaged P278 million worth of infrastructure and agricultural crops.

The floodwaters flowed 130 kilometers downstream, affecting the provinces of South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao and Cotabato City, according to a July 10, 1996 report by the then National Disaster Coordinating Council (now National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council).

A deadly night

Rosalinda Gepulango, wife of the then chief of Barangay New Dumangas, the worst village struck by the disaster here, recalled that they have no hunch that a deadly disaster would strike at them later in the night.

But it was raining in the village prior to the killer flashfloods, she recounted.

“We were even watching an evening action movie of (Filipino actor) Ace Vergel in our house,” she narrated, noting that electricity then was newly installed in their village.

It was only when her husband, Rolando, came out of the house to check a radio call from another village chief that they learned the impending disaster. Ga-o Creek, a tributary of Lake Maughan, was swelling and the rampaging waters were charting new paths.

“There was a thunderous noise from clashing rocks and fallen trees swept by the ravaging waters, and we ran for our lives,” Gepulango told MindaNews.

The family members immediately ran to higher ground where an elementary school stands up to now. They were all spared from death.

But the next morning when they checked on their house, it was no longer there as the ravaging floodwaters washed it out, along with the sheller and even the solar dryer.

The Gepulango family was then engaged in buying and selling of agricultural crops in the village, the most economically thriving barangay of this town because it was the area’s agricultural trading center.

Following the disaster, surviving villagers were given a four-hectare relocation site by the provincial government. It lies in an elevated portion of the barangay. The relocation site, as if a reminder of their harrowing experience, has been named Purok Survivor.

Gepulango believed the disaster was a natural calamity. She narrated a tale told by her deceased father-in-law that Lake Maughan, if not closely monitored, would trigger a terrible disaster due to landslides and fallen trees that have been blocking the mouth of the lake. This was still in the late 1970s.

“It would overflow if the mouth of the lake won’t regularly be cleared of debris,” she remember him as saying.

Gepulango stressed she’s no longer interested on what really caused the overflow of Lake Maughan, noting her priority now is how to meet the basic necessities of life or on how to recover the good life.

In the early 2000s, Gepulango said she tried to invest in a piggery at their previous property that was washed out by the 1995 flashfloods.

It was in vain as another massive flashflood hit our village, washing away the venture, she lamented.

This was in March 2002, when an estimated 8 million cubic meters of water overflowed from Lake Maughan due to landslide at the crater’s walls. There was an intensity seven earthquake that hit the area prior to the flashflood, a March 7, 2002 report from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Region 12 office said.

‘No clear findings’

Hilario de Pedro III, who was governor at the time of the 1995 Maughan disaster, said that Lake Maughan is prone to landslides, and the disaster could not be a man-made disaster.

It was reported that the collapse of the crater’s wall was allegedly due to treasure hunting activities.

“There were no clear findings up to now what really was the cause of that overflow,” said De Pedro, who was among those who took the heat for the incident being the governor then.

He recalled that prior to the killer flashflood, it rained “for nine days and nights” in the area. De Pedro lamented that up to now, what struck in the mind of the public was that the catastrophe was a man-made disaster.

But De Pedro, a lawyer, admitted that back then, the province had no consciousness efforts about hazard mitigations. Following the Maughan tragedy, it was only then that the province declared the riverbanks along the tributaries of Lake Maughan as danger zones.

He maintained, however, that the Maughan tragedy was a natural disaster, citing that the lake is prone to landslide due to volcanic pyroclastic materials.

Constancio Paye Jr., now the director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau in Region 12, said the geological investigation that they conducted revealed it was a natural disaster.

Paye was among the government geologists who immediately investigated the 1995 Maughan incident. Back then, South Cotabato was still under Region 11.

“There was a landslide that blocked the mouth of the lake. It resulted in a damming that caused the water to rise [and the eventual overflow],” Paye told MindaNews.

He said they discovered talus deposits at the mouth of Lake Maughan.

The website of states that talus deposits are rock fragments detached from cliffs or mountain slopes by weathering and piled up at their bases. A talus is a common geologic feature in regions of high cliffs. The constant weathering to which a talus is subjected, which breaks the rock fragments into finer pieces, and the impact of new material being added from above give the base of the talus a tendency to creep and slide. The term talus is often used to refer to the fragments themselves that cause a damming.

Case not yet closed

Salvador Ramos, former vice mayor of T’boli and the one mainly blamed for the Maughan tragedy, said the case is still under trial at a court in Surallah, South Cotabato.

He allegedly was behind the treasure hunting activity at Lake Maughan that was believed to have caused the water overflow.

“I’m praying that the case should be resolved. I’d suffer a lot of things,” he told MindaNews.

Ramos said the case dragged on for 17 years now because of the changes in judges hearing the case.

From multiple murder with damage to property cases, Ramos said he now faces charges for violation of Presidential Decree 1866 allegedly for illegal possession of explosives.

“But I have yet to be presented to the court as a defendant,” he said, noting he has evidences certified by the National Bureau of Investigation and the DENR that would show that there were no blasting activities at the lake.

Deep water

Lake Maughan is known among the locals as Lake Holon, a T’boli word meaning deep water.

To avoid a repeat of the tragedy, the provincial government has adopted a 24-hour monitoring of the lake, especially tasked to look for debris at its mouth that may block the outlet.

For some survivors at the relocation site called Purok Survivor, they may have moved on with their lives, but the memories of that fateful day remain clear and could not be forgotten.

Meanwhile, Lake Maughan has become one of South Cotabato’s tourist spots, especially among nature lovers. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)