Mount Pinatubo Eruption — An interview with a survivor

Originally printed in Clear Lake Courier — 16 December 1998

Mount Pinatubo is a volcano fifty miles north of Manila on the Philippine island of Luzon. Dormant for 600 years, it was classified inactive until it erupted in 1991.Monitoring and observation in early June showed significant enough changes that public warnings were issued of an impending eruption. Authorities evacuated 60,000 people from the mountain slopes and surrounding area, as well as 18,000 military personnel and dependents from nearby Clark Air Base.

The first eruption sent a mushroom cloud high into the air Wednesday, June 12. Explosions and earthquakes continued for days. The major eruption occurred June 15. Lasting six hours, it was the second largest of the twentieth century and ten times larger than that of Mount St. Helens in 1980. A giant cloud rose twenty miles in the air and spread a 2-inch layer of ash and sand over a 30-mile radius. The air filled with white sand so thick it reduced visibility to almost zero.

Then came Typhoon Yunya, bringing strong wind, rain, thunder and lightning. As Mount Pinatubo spewed out its insides, the loss of volume produced earthquakes and collapsed the summit. Wet sand blown by the typhoon buried crops and caused buildings to collapse from excess weight. This day became known as Black Saturday.

Senior Chief Petty Officer TJ Tijidor worked in aircraft squadron VC-5 at Naval Air Station Cubi Point. On Monday, June 10, he was told to organize a detachment to leave the next day for Okinawa. The squadron’s A-4 Skyhawk aircraft had to be flown out as a precaution.

TJ selected his people and started collecting spare parts, supplies, tools and support equipment. Administrative personnel provided written orders and paychecks, as well as making berthing and travel arrangements. TJ left for Okinawa the next morning, after assuring his wife and two children that Mount Pinatubo wasn’t expected to cause much damage at Cubi Point. Staying at his house was a Clark Air Base family the Tijidors had “adopted” when Clark personnel were evacuated to two Navy bases.

Pilots who flew the A-4 jets to Okinawa arrived there Wednesday afternoon with horror stories of the mountain erupting while they taxied to the runway. They told TJ’s crew of seeing a mushroom cloud behind them as they climbed safely into the air and away from airborne debris.

TJ tried to calm his sailors and convince them their families were safe–even though he worried about his own. He was greatly relieved to receive a phone call from the home squadron that verified the safety of all the families. Still, everyone worried about the next phase.

Wet sand carried by the typhoon covered Cubi Point. All communication systems shut down, and now the sailors and pilots on Okinawa operated on rumors. They would not know until a month later that their families traveled by boat to the southern Philippines, then flew to Guam and on to the U.S. mainland.

But the job still had to get done. TJ took his crew to Korea for a previously scheduled detachment. Unable to contact families, the sailors performed their duties and kept the aircraft flying. TJ’s most difficult job was getting them to concentrate on proper aircraft maintenance in spite of personal concerns. He assured them their wives and children were safe–and hoped he was telling the truth.

A month after Mount Pinatubo erupted, another crew relieved them and TJ’s crew returned to Cubi Point. What had been green was now white. All foliage had been stripped and the base appeared to be covered with snow. As his flight touched down, TJ noticed sand had been shoveled off the runway to provide space for aircraft to land.

His major concern at this moment was his house. Relieved to find the heavy wet sand had already been shoveled off his roof, TJ climbed over piles 6-8 feet deep to get inside the house. The interior was flooded because the sand had trapped the rainwater, but the windows and roof were intact.

Clumps of wet sand on the roads made driving almost impossible. Sailors spent several months cleaning up the base before their families returned from the U.S. Hired contractors trucked away the sand. Emergency generators provided sporadic power.

On the happy day his family came home, TJ learned how rough the experience had been for them. His eight-year-old son had hid under the bed during the volcanic eruption, listening to earthquakes that sounded like someone bowling under the house. With the wind and thunderstorms added by the typhoon, it felt like the world was ending.

Then came the evacuation–riding on a ship, living in tents while waiting for a flight, going to the mainland, doing it all without their father to assist them. TJ says, “I feel I owe my family–big time–for leaving them behind. I really felt I should have been there. But the call of duty….”

Pride and teamwork come to mind when TJ (now a master chief stationed in Japan) recalls these months in 1991. He expresses great pride in his sailors for fulfilling their job responsibilities while worried about their families. He is equally proud of his wife and children for their bravery and conduct. And he remembers the teamwork, from getting his detachment on the road to cleaning up the base after the disaster.

Mount Pinatubo, now classified as a active volcano, is 800 feet shorter than before it blew out its center. Clark Air Base, one of the largest U.S. Air Force bases overseas, never reopened. The two U.S. Navy bases, Naval Air Station Cubi Point and Naval Station Subic Bay, resumed operations until closed for political reasons in 1992.

TJ Tijidor sums up the ordeal: “That’s one experience I wouldn’t want to do again.”

One Response to “Mount Pinatubo Eruption — An interview with a survivor”

  1. Richard Young Says:

    I am an Air Force Msgt, retired. I am a Mt. Pinatubo survivor and I would love to communicate with other survivors. I still have the nightmares, dreams and have been recently been diagnosed with PTSD because of Mt Pinatubo.

    Any communication welcome

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