When a train speeds off-track

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

The news day of August 13 was already slowing down and winding up. At 3 p.m., the lineup for that night’s TV Patrol was already set, and there were hardly any big stories.

The so-called “Butcher”, Jovito Palparan, years at large, was quietly under NBI custody. Food costs were rising again, and I was getting ready to leave the office for a live price watch at the Commonwealth wet market.

Then at 4, my boss said, “Cancel that. You’re going to EDSA Taft.”

People in the newsroom were now standing up, clumped around desktop PCs, and hurrying about. They were saying a carriage of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) plying EDSA had derailed.

Was it true? Everyone looked for proof on social media.

They soon found one, a picture posted by a Twitter user, @ryandgreat. The shot was greeted with gasps. It seemed like the movie “Speed” come to life–minus an explosion. The train had run off in a barrage of debris past the EDSA-Pasay Taft station and onto the asphalt of the Pasay Rotonda.

Writers at the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) scrambled to break the incident in their ongoing newscast with the shot, while crews from the network hadn’t arrived. The pic was being re-tweeted by other news orgs. But a breaking news producer shouted, “Huwag gamitin si @ryandgreat! Taga-TV5 siya!

The writers quickly found another pic as more and more images streamed into social media. But they still had to message the poster for permission. Other mobile users soon tagged ABS-CBN’s online platforms with their photos.

With initial details coming in through interviews by radio DZMM, TV channels 2 and ANC finally broke the story. The news desk people again converged around TV Patrol’s executive producer on duty as she hastened to change the lineup.

The MRT’s troubles are nothing new. Commuters face the daily bane of long waits and lines during rush hour. But it’s been months since a train froze mid-trip. And no incident had come close to this yet. Except groups had warned that something like this was bound to happen the 15-year-old rail.

To add context to the headlines, someone recommended rehashing from the video library previous reports done on the state of the MRT.

A team bringing our ENG van was already on way to Pasay. By 4:30 p.m., I got on a shuttle to meet them.

My boss let me off saying: “You’re the top story.”

* * * * *

@ryandgreat was Ryan Soyosa, a fellow field producer at TV5. He was already off-duty and riding a bus to Baclaran when he passed by the EDSA-Taft station and saw the carnage. His first instinct: to stop, take shots, and alert his news desk.

Ryan battled a fluctuating Internet connection just to get his shots out. As other online users and news orgs got wind of his tweet, his network began sending its teams to the area.

The ill-fated MRT carriage. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

The ill-fated MRT carriage. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

The elevated walkways surrounding the station brimmed with onlookers, many of whom were commuters intrigued by the out-of-place train. It had careened up to the station’s metal barrier, felling a concrete light post and smashing an SUV, but not enough to reach the potted trees used to separate EDSA’s north and southbound lanes. Police had surrounded it with yellow tape.

Many passengers of the ill-fated carriage had long fled it after the crash. Only the heavily injured and immobile–none critical–were left waiting for rescuers.

It was 5:30. The tripods, lights, and monitors of the TV networks were set up beside the fallen light post, all angling for a shot of the train. Photographers still swarmed the area, waiting to interview any members of officialdom who arrived.

Ryan had stayed to help his News5 colleagues manning the live set up, as Bryan Ocampo, the actual producer on duty, prepped shots from the van.

TV5 producer Ryan Soyosa with his team setting up at the MRT crash site for their newscast (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

TV5 producer Ryan Soyosa with his team setting up at the MRT crash site for their newscast (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

I, too, was helping out on the ground for our main field producer, Conrado “Shadow” Alabastro. He cut video and sound bites for reporter Jacque Manabat as we set up the stand-upper for her top-story live. I also had another assignment.

* * * * *

It was clear the MRT accident would hog the time of the newscasts. Aside from throwback stories on the woes of the train line and updates on how the crash affected trips that day, the show producers also wanted a live interview with an official whose turf included the railways.

First, it was Hernando Cabrera, spokesperson for the MRT and Light Rail Transit. But now they wanted me to grab Transport Sec. Joseph Emilio “Jun” Abaya who was already inspecting the carriage.

It took him time to emerge. By then, my team and I were moving our live equipment away from the fallen light post. Workers had brought a crane to move it just as TV Patrol was starting. Midway through Jacque’s headline story, Sec. Abaya was stalled by a huddle of backpack cameramen for a statement.

Jacque Manabat reporting the MRT accident for TV Patrol. Click to watch it. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Jacque Manabat reporting the MRT accident for TV Patrol. Click to watch it. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

The follow-up questions ran long. I and other network reps approached to ask Abaya to do a live on-camera interview once the “ambush” questions ended. But it was GMA 7’s reporter, who was already with the “ambush” crews, who succeeded in getting him on-cam first. Abaya assured me he would talk to TV Patrol next. I fitted his right ear with an earpiece (GMA’s was on the left) and again waited for the GMA interview to end.

As with any crisis, the public wanted–even needed–answers. But more so, the public waited for an apology, or at least a claim of responsibility.

“I don’t offer any excuse that this has happened,” Abaya told TV Patrol’s Noli De Castro, after apologizing to affected passengers and promising help to the injured.

An investigation was still in the works, he said, but they were already zooming in on “procedural” rather than “mechanical” failure as the cause. It was clear, then, that the accident happened because the “coupling” that connected of the carriage and another gave way as it was being pushed by the other into the Pasay Taft station.

DOTC Sec. Abaya on-cam for TV Patrol. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

DOTC Sec. Abaya on-cam for TV Patrol. The full interview on a click. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

* * * * *

The overshot carriage remained stranded, but it did not stop MRT operations.

After getting Abaya live for TV5, Ryan finally got his off and visited the Baclaran church. I went back the next day to air Doris Bigornia’s live report from inside the wreck on commuter reactions and Atom Araullo’s “Red Alert” tips on responding to train accidents. Our live vans remained there until the carriage was hauled off the next night.

The incident only added to the problems of Abaya, who was already managing ventilation issues in the airport and unceasing traffic in EDSA. A week after, the DOTC blamed the crash on “human error”, filing administrative charges on the train’s two drivers.

Abaya on TV5. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Abaya on TV5. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Back in 2011, EDSA was also the site of a commuter tragedy. A passenger bus blew up along Buendia in Makati late in the afternoon of January 25. Same last-minute deployment of news teams, same adrenaline rush for prime time. Only the bus blast also took the lives of four.

Authorities responded the same day. The bus was quickly cleared off the streets. The blast, traced to a bomb, raised concerns of safety for bus riders. Promises and suspects were released, but the incident was ultimately left to the memory bin.

With millions riding the MRT and more lives at stake, one train overshooting the tracks should be enough to let concerned authorities prevent it from happening again.

Clockwise: Pasay City Mayor Tony Calixto, MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino, DOTC Sec. Joseph Emilio Abaya, and MRT/LRT Spokesman Hernando Cabrera on his back) discuss the MRT accident. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Clockwise: Pasay City Mayor Tony Calixto, MMDA Chair Francis Tolentino, DOTC Sec. Joseph Emilio Abaya, and MRT/LRT Spokesman Hernando Cabrera on his back) discuss the MRT accident. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)


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