By Zsarlene B. Chua

THE weather that Sunday was beautiful, said Jose Ricardo “Pepi” Casas who was in Tagaytay for a family reunion. The skies were clear and there was no sign that just a few hours later, the nearby Taal Volcano would explode, spewing ash, steam, and rocks into a cloud that reached a kilometer into the air.

Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), which had been monitoring the island closely for nearly a year after it showed signs of activity last March, raised the danger level from Alert Level 1 where it had been for months, to Alert Level 3 that afternoon, and then to Alert Level 4 by early Sunday evening, warning the public to expect a hazardous explosive eruption within hours or days. (Related story on page S1/10.)

“I was with my family including my two daughters aged six and two, my parents — my mother is in a wheelchair — and at noon on Sunday, we were on the road wanting to horseback ride on the volcano itself, but I thought it was too much trouble going down when Picnic Grove also offers horseback rides, so we turned back and headed to Picnic Grove,” Mr. Casas told BusinessWorld in a phone call yesterday.

“It wasn’t my intuition or anything, I was just in a bad mood. We almost got trapped on the volcano island,” he laughed after recalling the close call.

With the sudden eruption, many tourists found themselves stranded in Tagaytay, the city on the ridge of an ancient caldera overlooking the lake which is home to Volcano Island.

After sightseeing, the Casas family returned to the Emimarona Hotel at around 3 p.m. where they saw guests and hotel employees looking up at the sky — the volcano had just erupted, and ash and rocks were pelting the cars, the driveway, and the roads. “I saw when Pinatubo [in Pampanga] erupted [in 1991] and the ashfall was like Johnson’s Baby Powder, it’s fine and light gray. This one was different: it’s really gray, muddy pebbles,” he said.

The family didn’t leave immediately because they initially thought it wasn’t dangerous and getting the chance to see such a natural phenomenon was rare. But a few hours of the volcano’s constant rumbling and the continuous ashfall, they decided to leave. It was not easy.

“The road was packed with mud and slippery and there was zero visibility. The windshield wipers weren’t working anymore. We decided to turn back when we realized we were going to be stuck without supplies for hours on the road,” he said. They managed to return to the hotel at 9 p.m., hoping to wait until the traffic has eased before attempting to leave again. The power was out and the hotel was having trouble starting its generators. After midnight, the family decided to leave.

“I had to wheel my mother through the mud. The mud was about two inches thick at this point. I spent an hour scraping the mud from the windshield and headlights using my hands,” said Mr. Casas.

There were still guests at the hotel when they left, including a group of Korean elementary school children from a Korean school in Metro Manila.

No one talked throughout the journey home. The roads were so slippery that maneuvering the car became a challenge. They made it home to Parañaque City at 5 a.m.

“We wanted to go home so we could escape the ash and mud — but when we went home we saw our house covered in ash,” said Mr. Casas, laughing.

John Dan Ramos, who attended a wedding at the Tagaytay Midlands Hotel, was stranded on the road for 15 hours without food or water, unable to go up the steep zigzag driveway leading from the club complex to the main ridge road.

In a series of tweets in the early hours of Monday morning, Mr. Ramos appealed for help because many of the hotel’s guests were unable to leave due to the ash-covered slippery road. “Many of us wanted to walk away from the area but we couldn’t because it was so slippery and the ashfall was so thick. We tried to leave using our private vehicles — we had no choice but to take the risk — but the roads were so slippery,” he said in Filipino.

A few hours later, he tweeted that a rescue team had cleared the roads and they were able to leave.

“But there are still people in Tagaytay Midlands that need help,” he said.

Hotels and restaurants in Tagaytay City have either closed their operations or have limited their operations to assisting guests who want to leave or cancel their reservations.

“Majority of our guests went home to be with their families. Only employees are left in the hotel,” Jose Marie Oano, general manager of Summit Ridge Tagaytay, told BusinessWorld via a text message on Monday. “Incoming groups and events we have to suspend first until the eruptions settle down,”

Mr. Oano noted that mobile phone coverage and the internet connection are intermittent at the 108-room hotel along Aguinaldo Highway in Tagaytay City.

Hotel Monticello, a 41-room hotel located a few kilometers away from Summit Ridge, said that they are constantly updating their remaining guests regarding the situation so they can decide whether to leave or stay. Many of the guests have already left, the rest are waiting to check-out today, said Raffy Binay, the hotel’s operations manager in phone call with BusinessWorld.

The 262-room Taal Vista Hotel, one of the oldest hotels along Aguinaldo Highway, said in a statement that it “continues to operate with limited services” because they still have guests in the premises.

“Basic necessities such as food and beverage, electrical power, water, internet remain available. We are constantly monitoring the situation and rest assured our guests and employees are our utmost priority,” the hotel’s management said.

In a separate message, the hotel said its clinic is open all day and has been giving protective breathing face masks to its guests. “We have a trained emergency response team available and we are open for accommodation to guests, especially to nearby communities needing it. We are closely monitoring the situation and will continue to diligently take necessary actions to keep our guests safe and secure at all times,” Michael Anthony Sagaran, marketing communications manager of the hotel, said.

The Discovery Country Suites, a small hotel located along the Tagaytay-Calamba Road on the ridge’s slope facing the volcano, has closed. It said in an e-mailed statement that the hotel’s “emergency plan was implemented, and all the guests and staff have been assisted with the evacuation.”

“Discovery Country Suites will remain closed indefinitely until the situation normalizes. Guests with future reservations are being contacted to facilitate alternative arrangements,” Janice Tiambeng, the hotel’s general manager said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Tagaytay restaurant chain Bag of Beans which has five branches in the city told BusinessWorld via Messenger that they are “deeply affected by the ashfall which has turned into a thick mud sludge.”

“All our branches canceled operations today. We closed early yesterday. We also advised all motorists to avoid Tagaytay area,” Moon Peñaflorida, Bag of Beans’ marketing and social media manager said.

Taal Volcano — located in the Philippines’ biggest island, Luzon — is the country’s second most active volcano. All of its eruptions are concentrated on Volcano Island, an island near the middle of Taal Lake.

Its last major eruption was in 1977, although the volcano has shown signs of unrest since then.

With the volcano located just 50 kilometers from Metro Manila, ashfall has reached its cities, prompting the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to halt operations on Sunday. Around 240 flights were canceled due to the airport closure, but NAIA resumed partial operations on Monday — starting 10 a.m. for departures and 12 noon for arrivals.

“Right now our most urgent concern is the safety and security and the general welfare of our tourists. We have been in touch with our stakeholders in the local government and private sector… we will be taking into account the impact of this maybe after this,” Department of Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said in an interview with Bloomberg’s Daybreak Asia on Monday.

“Operation of [NAIA] have been disrupted but passengers have been able to go via Clark or in Mactan, Cebu,” she added.

To date, the Department of Tourism has accredited over 80 hotels, resorts, and other accommodations in Region IV-4 or Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon) where Tagaytay is located.

Despite the frightening events of that Sunday, Mr. Casas said that they are returning to Tagaytay and already have rooms booked for February.

“This is not a permanent thing. I think after this, the volcano will die down again,” he said. — with Joseph L. Garcia and Michelle Anne P. Soliman