Many parishioners wept upon seeing the ruins of their century-old church, which was gutted by fire in Oslob town, about 117 km south of Cebu City.
They were, however, thankful that the 19th century image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe that was placed inside a glass case at the center of the altar was spared in the fire that broke out at 1:45 a.m. yesterday.
Firefighters also found 73 other icons below the bell tower and some portions of the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception parish church in barangay Poblacion.
The fire started from the room of the parish priest, Fr. Valentino Gemelo, located on the second floor of the convent, which was adjacent to the church.
No people were hurt in the fire but it killed the 13 cats and kittens owned by Fr. Gemelo.
About P2 million worth of property inside the convent went up in smoke but church officials would not place a value on the 19th-century structures and antique furniture that were destroyed in the fire.
Ferilan Gemelo, 20-year-old convent helper and nephew of the parish priest, said the fire would not have gotten bigger had the fire department been able to respond immediately.
The church was located about 50 meters from the fire station.
SFO2 Jaime Suycano, Oslob fire marshal, said they could not respond because their two fire trucks were defective.
He said they had to ask some residents to help them push one of the fire trucks to the church, so they could hose the fire down.
The fire trucks from nearby towns of Santander, Dalaguete, Argao and Sibonga arrived past 2 a.m. But by the time the trucks arrived, the fire had already engulfed the church and the convent.
The fire department in Boljoon town failed to send fire trucks because these were also defective.
At the time of the fire, Father Gemelo was in Cebu City to have his vehicle checked. Tuesday was his day off.
According to Ferilan, he was inside the room across the parish priest?s room typing his term paper on the computer when the fire broke out.
He noticed something wrong with his monitor. Then he heard noise inside the priest?s room.
Ferilan went out of the room to check out the noise, then saw the thick smoke coming from another room next to Fr. Gemelo?s.
He immediately roused from sleep Dixon Obligado, another convent worker. Both ran to the police station to report the fire but the policeman told them to go to the fire department.
When they reached the fire station, Obligado said he immediately told the fireman on duty about the fire but the officer merely walked outside the station and looked up to the direction of the church.
The fireman then returned to his seat, without saying a word.
?Wa mi nila prangkahi nga guba diay ilang firetrucks (We are not told that their firetrucks had malfunctioned),? said Obligado.
Frustrated, Obligado and Ferilan decided to run back to the convent and tried to put out the fire themselves.
They took pails of water and threw it into the fire but the blaze had gotten bigger. They decided to run out of the burning building.
Ferilan grabbed the central processing unit of his computer and dashed out.
He said he wanted to get the computer on the ground floor that contained some important files like baptismal and confirmation records but he feared that he might be trapped inside the office.
When the smoke cleared, only the walls and columns of the church, which were made of coral stones, remained.
But at the center of the altar stood the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe, the same image that was also spared in the fire that hit the church in 1955. (See related story)
The image, one of the oldest in the province, is among the religious icons brought to Oslob by Spaniards from Mexico, said Louella Alix, a member of the Archdiocesan Commission on the Cultural Heritage of the Church.
The religious icon was removed from the burnt altar and is now kept at the Office of the Vice Mayor along with other icons that were recovered from the fire.
A portion of the altar?s roof had caved in but it did not hit the image of the Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is about four feet tall and made of molave wood.
?Milagro gyud (It?s a miracle),? said Socrates Legaspi, one of the parishioners.
Miguel Yrauda, an 88-year-old lay minister, said it was painful to see what happened to the church that his forefathers had helped build.
He said his mother told him that his grandfather was one of the residents who brought the coral stones that were used to construct the church.
Yrauda said he could not help but ask why their church had been burned at least twice. ?What were the sins of the Oslobanons?? he asked.
Fr. Gemelo was teary-eyed upon seeing what had become of his church. The parish priest was informed by his nephew of the fire.
Bishop Julito Cortes, chairman of the Catholic Bishops? Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Episcopal Committee for Cultural Heritage of the Church, was heard telling Fr. Gemelo, ?condolence.?
Firefighters told the priest that the fire could have been triggered by faulty electrical wiring after Ferilan noted that the blaze came from the ceiling of Fr. Gemelo?s room.
Fr. Gemelo, who lost his personal belongings in the fire, said Bishop Cortes had promised to help him. The priest will temporarily stay at the Religious of the Virgin Mary Congregation convent located at the back of the church.
He said he felt sad with what happened to his Persian and Siamese cats. ?They were the ones who wake me up,? he said.
While the church has yet to be reconstructed, Father Gemelo said they would hold Masses at the the Camarin on weekdays and at the town?s covered court on weekends.
About 4:30 p.m. yesterday, Fr. Gemelo officiated a Mass at the Camarin, a one-story structure where the church?s carrosas were kept. It is located about 15 meters from the church.
In his homily, the parish priest asked his parishioners not to be overwhelmed with grief with what happened to their beloved church. With the help of the community, he added they would be able to rebuild the church.
About 100 parishioners attended the Mass. Many of them were in tears.
In the meantime, the Provincial Fire Marshall will have to explain why the office failed to have the town?s fire trucks fixed.
SFO2 Suycano said they informed the Provincial Fire Marshall and Oslob Mayor Ronald Guarin about the defects of the two fire trucks last March 3, but no repairs were made.
He said one fire truck had a defective clutch assembly while the pump of the other firetruck was damaged.
He added that he had requested for funds to repair the fire trucks but the money had not been released.
Virgina Palanca-Santiago, Assistant Deputy Ombudsman for the Visayas, said they would docket for fact-finding inquiry the alleged failure of some officials to have the fire trucks repaired.
?Why was the request not acted upon? Had they acted on the matter? Did they have enough funds? How come the fire trucks were not fixed when these are important?? she said.
Msgr. Achilles Dakay, Cebu Archdiocese media liaison officer, said that the fire should serve as lesson for provincial officials to improve the facilities in the province?s fire-fighting equipment.
Dakay said provincial officials such as Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia should visit the towns to determine what facilities needed to be improved. /With Correspondent Jhunnex Napallacan