Monday, 9 January 2012


A bird’s eye view of the present-day Paracale poblacion just next to the Paracale Bay. This picture was taken from the former mining site of United Paracale (UP) Mining Co.– Photo courtesy of BERNARD CASTILLO
The Golden Greed: Paracale gold mine Disaster


GREED brought sudden death to Paracale, once a booming gold mining town in the Philippines.

Death, because 56 miners drowned in the gold-rich tunnels that sucked an entire river one early Christmas morning and shocked the world 54 years ago.

Death, because with the collapse in 1952 of the goldmines then known to the locals as U.P. (United Paracale Mining Co), Paracale’s gold-laden lifestyles soon lost the glitters.

The specter of hunger set in and soon, the town’s well-asphalted roads courtesy of prosperity from the gold trade, were walked by jobless miners. And the roadside sari-sari stores (variety stores) saw its “listahan” (a list of people who bought foodstuff and other goods on credit) getting long while the goods on the shelves dwindled fast.

Chinese men, who then ran the biggest retail stores, began refusing credit to the once-prosperous clients. The Chinese were not longer sure if the locals could still make their credit good.
Many families, most of them migrants from nearby and far-flung provinces, left town in trickles as they found mining no longer the livelihood it used to be. They had to leave town as life became more and more unpromising. Most rebuilt their lives in the nearby town of Jose Panganiban, then a booming iron-ore mining town. Others, however, returned to their respective native Bicol towns when they failed to find work in the iron mines.

Those who stuck out – and they were the Paracalenos – suddenly remembered their plows and bolos. It was then sensible for them to go back to their mountainside “kaingin” (slash-and-burn) farms. Others became fishermen again while the rest tended to their coconut trees which they conveniently forgot during the good old days and planted their rice paddies once more.

Others, including my father, ventured into gold-panning and farming.

Panning for gold in a freshwater, probably artificial, lake. This locality is Baybayin, Paracale, Camarines Norte, Bikol, Philippines.- Photo courtesy of uk
Over the last several years, Paracale had struggled hard to get the economy back on its feet. As they said, Paracale’s might and glory now belonged to the sunken gold-rich tunnels, its pride now embedded among the useless gold side by side with the skeletons of 56 miners.

It was said these men had to die to make gold, then very common, more wanted and precious for those who held it dear. Old-timers were convinced that when the mines collapsed, the town’s glittering future crumbled with it.

There was no more hopes for the town to regain the olden days – when the mines were turning out more and more gold for those who wanted it, and when Paracalenos had much money.

Miners from all over the Bicol region wanted to come to Paracale to join the gold rush. Paracale gold was a tempting 22-karat metal and the town was awash in money from the gold trade.

“Ginto ng Paracale, mawala man ay di bale …” (gold from Paracale, you can afford to lose it …)

No doubt, gold was aplenty and this classic line was mouthed all over town. You lose your gold today, you’ll find another on the walls of the tunnels the next day.

It was a grim tragedy that wiped out the town’s economy and brought untold miseries to the inhabitants, our family included, as my young father had worked in the mines as a mechanic-driver.

It came on the early morning of December 16, 1952 barely nine days before Christmas.

While a third of the town’s religious were hearing the 6 o’clock mass, the last service for the first “Simbang Gabi” (Midnight Mass), a disaster was to explode deep in the gold mine tunnels, 200 feet under earth where the town sat.

Left: Roberto L Gorobat, a young goldsmith in Paracale, Camarines Norte, works on a piece of jewelry. After the UP gold mine collapsed, Paracalenos turned to fishing, farming and gold-panning for livelihood. The gold-panners continually supplied gold nuggets to goldsmiths that mushroomed around town a few years after the mine collapsed thus, propping up the local economy. –  Photo courtesy Richard Strauss. Right: A row of nipa huts occupied by subsistence fishermen families along the shore of Pulangdaga (red earth) which is just a short distance from the collapsed UP gold mine. – Photo courtesy jeromeservranckx100’s

That precise moment, a team of five to eight miners had dynamited a critical portion of the tunnel walls that showed a long gold vein. The endangered area had been giving a lot of worry to other miners. It was reported earlier to the company management that for several days now, a leak of what appeared to be seawater had been furiously cascading against the tunnel walls.

The critical spot was directly under a wide river 200 feet above which ebbed to and fro to a nearby bay. At high tide, the river would swell reaching the rows of houses by the river banks, including ours; at low tide, the river would contract to a third of its size when swollen, but still deep enough to allow boats – big and small – to sail.

From a window in the back of our house, we could see the other side of the river and the structures that dotted the mine site one and half kilometers away.

For several days, the miners were warned to avoid working near the critical spot. But miners would just shrugged it off and braced the tunnel roofs up with strong timbers before demolishing another wall.

“Sayang kung hindi natin makukuha ang ginto … (it’s a big waste if we couldn’t get the gold …” the miners would say, ignoring that danger loomed over them. The temptation to smuggle gold out of the mine camp was just too great for them to resist.

And then the underground blasting went on unabated. The miners’ prospect for the Christmas holidays made them throw precautions into the darkness of the tunnel.

The 400-year-old parish church of Our Lady of Candelaria. It was first built in 1611 with bamboo and nipa. Between 1888 and 1898, the Spaniards rebuilt it using stones. – Photo courtesy of MARK VINCENT/LENS
THEN IT came. On December 16, 1952, the critical spot finally gave in to the massive weight of rocks, soft earth and the river itself, trapping the 56 miners deep inside the tunnels.

Immediately after a loud explosion rocked the tunnels, and was heard by workers on the surface, a flood of what turned out to be seawater came rumbling down, deluding hundreds of short and long tunnels being worked by the 56 miners that early morning.

The network of tunnels at level one (100 feet below) and level 2 (200 feet below) and level 3 (300 feet below) sucked the entire river and kept it dry for about one hour before the water returned to its former level.

While the river dried up scores of fish had jumped wildly in the mud

That morning, I was watching some sailboats cruising the river as I would usually do while my younger sister Helen and I waited for mother to prepare breakfast when I noticed a boat just got stuck in the mud but I didn’t know why. The river’s drying up was also seen by residents living by the river bank but then they could not explain what was really going on.

Only one miner survived the disaster, identified as “Ragil”.” Shocked, Ragil could only say he was just several meters away from the mouth of the main tunnel when seawater crumbled over him and swept him to the surface ground. When rescue teams found him, Ragil was a mass of mangled flesh from the beatings he got while the rumbling flood violently dragged him against the sharp edges of the long-winding tunnel walls on his way up to the surface ground.

I WAS just three years and eight months old then. I was not aware of what was going on that morning except for my witnessing of that boat running aground on the river floor. But my father and mother, and my aunt who lived in the house next to ours and who had a husband who also had worked in the mines were all in shocked hysteria. My father just came home running from the mine after working the 10pm-6am shift and was panting furiously as he broke out the news:

“Lumubog ang U. P. …! “(U.P. sunk …!)” “Lumubog ang U.P. …”

My father was shouting to no-one in particular although he knew the news would be received with shock by our neighbors whose livelihood depended on the mines.

THE TUNNELS were never mined again. The mining company* shut its entire operations and settled the claims of the victims’ relatives. The management knew it was too impossible to mine the tunnels again as they remained flooded up to now.

Here, the skeletons of the 56 miners remained embedded together with their mining equipment and their gold.

On the ground surface, which made up the whole town of Paracale, poverty continued to live with the locals for quite some time until they found their old bearing – that was to get back to fishing, farming and creek-side gold-panning,  which later proved to be destructive to the environment.

There’s too much gold down there waiting for them, but they would rather forget all about it.

Even up to these days, 59 years after the tragedy, Paracalenos continued to live by a golden rule: Greed is a shortcut to grave.

(Author’s note: Until a few years ago, one or two mining companies had revived operations in Paracale. One of which was Filipino-owned Pearl Asian Mining Industries (PAMI) which started operations in 2004. Its surface gold mining operations through the Paracale Mining Site mill 650 tons of rock daily, yielding 382 ounces of gold and 1,018 ounces of silver per day. The mine’s annual revenue from gold and silver output was at over US$40 million gross or US$12 million net. In its corporate vision statement, it promised to protect the environment so that the UP mining tragedy would never happen again through use of maximum efficiency and applicable state-of-the-art technologies so that the host community – Paracale – would benefit to the maximum.)

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