This short story was inspired by a true event that happened while I was working in Mindanao as Senior Geologist for a government agency. I originally posted this on my private blog but now with minor revisions.
I still remember vividly how the day started. I saw my wife preparing my lunch box and tools as I sipped my coffee while staring at the sunlight filtering through the cheap panes of our window. I also remember staring at my youngest son playing near his mother’s feet. He was crawling and trying to catch the hem of his mother’s skirt, probably to catch her attention. I took him and made him sat on my lap.
I left at 5 PM when the sun was already starting to sink from the sky in beautiful play of colors of grey, purple, orange, and yellow. It was beautiful but the air around somehow felt wrong, cold, and foreboding. I remember how my son cried for me while I was going down the stairs of our hut, with my old bag strapped on my back. I thought of going back into my humble abode but I saw my four companions already walking in my direction. I didn’t know then that it was going to be the last time I’d see my companions alive.
I thought of my son while I was entering the narrow tunnel entrance. I heard the faint hiss of the tunnel’s air pipe like a long serpent on the tunnel roof. I was reassured by the sound. We went deeper into the tunnel, crawling most of the way. At the end of that winding tunnel is a 60-meter sinking shaft. It rained the previous day, I suspected the shaft will be filled with water. But on we went until we got near the entrance to the shaft where the ceiling was already high enough for us to stand.
We got to working for what felt like hours. Then I started feeling dizzy. Disoriented. I felt an earthquake. Looking back, it might have been a product of my imagination. I listened for the hiss of the air pipe, I could no longer hear it. I fell down on the ground, my vision blurry. I started looking for my companions, they were leaning against the wall, possibly feeling disoriented as well. It was then that we realized we had to crawl back to the tunnel. Our lamps powered by calcium carbide slowly died on us. The darkness became so thick you could slice it with your arms. That’s when I thought that death was upon us. I moved.
My son’s warmth was all I could think of while I struggled to crawl my way back to the entrance of the narrow tunnel. I saw flashes of that morning’s scene, of my son crawling back towards his mom when I was about to leave. I struggled with every breath, each time death was coming towards me in the form of excruciating pain in my lungs. Death seemed inevitable. I heard my companions breathe deeply as well. I was wrong. I didn’t realize it was going to be their last breaths until I heard a splash. One of them had fallen into the deep water pool into the sinking shaft. Who was that person? I couldn’t check back anymore. I didn’t have the energy to do so. I thought of my son and crawled again. It was so dark. I couldn’t see where I’m going, all I knew was I had to keep going, keep fighting. For my son, at least.
I heard another splash. And then another. Death had come and claimed my companions. One by one each succumbed to death. Not me, dear God, not me please I said, in silent prayers. I moved forward, on all fours. I slipped, got bruised and cut everywhere. I realized that the tunnel slope was gently ascending. Every inch of my skin was lacerated by jagged rocks of the tunnel. That was how it felt, at least. My lungs got heavier and heavier, my heart, smaller and smaller. My head felt heavier and heavier with each crawl. The darkness was thick enough to envelop me like a shroud. I needed to find the light. I had to be free, this agony had to stop. One more splashing sound came to me, this time, fainter. I felt someone brush against me. He said something to me but I could hardly understand the words. The voice belonged to our leader. He went deeper into the tunnel. I tried to warn him but he wouldn’t listen. I did manage to hear him say “son” to me. I tried to tell him that his son is dead. I couldn’t. I was parched, my lungs almost empty.
In the beginning was darkness. Then God made light. I saw the yellow light at the end of the tunnel. I am dying, I thought. Didn’t they say that once you see the light, you’re definitely dying? Then I saw shadows against the light. I heard noises. Isn’t heaven supposed to be quiet? I felt hands drag me into the light. My ancestors? Then I saw the stars as backdrop to faces anxiously looking at me, lighted by the faint yellow lamp. I could not recognize any of them but they were angels of hope. I breathed the fresh air. I am alive.
*This entry was inspired by the death of the miners I last saw alive on August 2008 during one of our inspections of illegal mining operations in Misamis Oriental. In March 31, 2009, months after our inspection, five miners were trapped in a narrow mine tunnel in Opol. I personally talked to the leader of the miners during the inspection, he was a friendly man, his family cooked lunch for us. Although their mining operation was illegal, our team who was part of the regulating body was taken care of and respected during our inspection. When he found out that his son was among those trapped in a sinking shaft on that fateful afternoon of March 31, 2009, he rushed into the tunnel to rescue him and his companion. He didn’t come out alive. Four of the trapped miners drowned inside a very deep sinking shaft after they ran out of air due to faulty air circulation pipe. The lone survivor was able to tell what happened while being treated in the hospital. The bodies of his companions w the leader who tried to rescue his son were retrieved in the morning of April 1. This entry is dedicated to those who died by asphyxiation and drowning in the tunnel. May you all rest in peace, sirs. I still remember your faces while you were alive. I shall never forget your faces during your deaths through the pictures sent to me by colleagues. I was heavily pregnant then and could no longer rush to the scene.