When the Taal volcano erupted, I was at a wedding — then we were trapped

John Dan Ramos

It was a fine afternoon when I arrived at Tagaytay Midlands Veranda hotel for the wedding of my cousin on Sunday 12th January. The sun was out and there was a cool breeze coming from the surrounding mountains. All our family had gathered to celebrate the event in the resort, a short distance from the Philippines’ capital Manila.

The ceremony started at around 2pm. The groom walked down the aisle with his parents, followed by the bride in her elegant white gown. Everything was going smoothly. Then suddenly, I received a message from my dad in Saudi Arabia: “What’s the current situation there? The Taal volcano just erupted. Did you feel it?”

I was shocked as I didn’t feel a thing. But when I looked to my right, I saw it. The nearby volcano which can be clearly viewed from the hotel was spewing a dark cloud of ash into the sky. Undeterred, we pushed on with the wedding. When the ceremony finished at 4pm and we waited on the veranda to start the reception, the ash began to fall.

Cars were slowly covered by the mud-like detritus and the grey chairs used during the wedding ceremony slowly darkened. Some guests got scared and decided to go home, while most of us decided to stay. I wanted to leave as well because I knew the danger we were in, but I felt that I couldn’t abandon the newlyweds on their special day.

After some songs and prayers for safety, the buffet table opened. But just as everyone was tucking into a delicious feast, we felt the first quake of the night. The whole venue shook and instantly everyone stopped eating. People were frightened, and the rest of the wedding rituals were observed as quickly as possible so we could go home.

By the time the reception ended at 9pm, however, we were trapped. The roads were blocked by the thick volcanic ash and the pavements were too slippery to walk on. It was made even more treacherous by the fact that access to the venue was uphill.

Several more earthquakes struck and the ground shook every 20 to 30 minutes. Everyone panicked, but I tried to remain calm. The air was thick with ash now and we all put on masks. It smelt like a mix of sulphur and gunpowder.

We finally accepted that we would be spending the night at the venue without any assurance of our safety as the quakes showed no signs of stopping. People started looking for their own spots to rest or at least take a short nap. I slept under a table for safety in case another, bigger quake hit us.

It was 3am when I saw the lava erupting from the Taal volcano. Tensions grew and some guests broke down and cried. Others considered abandoning their cars and escaping by foot instead, but it was too dark and cold outside. There was still ash falling and the mud was thickening. We began to lose hope of going home.

Those were the longest hours of our lives. At 5am, we all felt the strongest quake yet. The chandeliers clanged and the glass window almost shattered. The children were in tears. We knew it was no longer safe to stay in the area. We went outside and began to clean the debris off the cars using a high-pressured water hose.

I became desperate and asked for help on Twitter – hundreds of us were still trapped at the venue, young and old. I appealed for a rescue team to save us and, unexpectedly, my tweet went viral, gaining thousands of tweets, likes, and replies.

At 6am, the sun was already out. We managed to escape using the car my cousin was driving. We were moving slowly. Everyone was helping to clear the roads of ash and other obstacles such as pine trees toppled by the force of the quakes. Little by little, we managed to get away.

We then came across a group of rescuers who also helped us clear a path to safety. They brought shovels to remove the ashes and mud and another truck went up to the hotel to help others escape.

After more than 15 hours of being stranded, we finally reached the expressway back to Manila. We were so relieved; my cousin broke down and cried. The volcano was far away now, but we could have died. It was a lucky escape. I never managed to say thank-you to the rescue teams but it’s because of them that we were able to escape with our lives.

John Dan Ramos lives in Manila, Philippines and works for a BPO company