Friday, April 29, 2005

He lived fully his passion for volcanoes

The man who was catapulted to fame after predicting one of the world’s biggest volcanic eruptions in the last century — that of Mt. Pinatubo on June 12 to 15, 1991 — is gone. Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan, former director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), died in a helicopter crash yesterday morning in Barangay Ligaya, Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija.

The crash also claimed the lives of Phivolcs personnel Jessie Daligdig, Norman Tungol, Dindo Javier and Orlando Abengonza. Punongbayan, accompanied by the Phivolcs personnel, was on his way "to assess the various natural hazards in the area of Dingalan, Aurora and Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija, in relation to the selection of a safe site for rehabilitation and resettlement of affected communities during the 2004 typhoons" when the Huey helicopter crashed into a mountainside.

"He died for his country. He died performing the passion of his life – mitigating disasters," Lulu Punongbayan-Jaleco, the eldest of his four children, told The STAR yesterday. According to Sen. Richard Gordon, Punongbayan had sent him an email on the eve of the fatal crash, outlining his mission to Dingalan and showing the former Phivolcs director was dedicated to his work up until the end. A pall of gloom settled over Phivolcs offices yesterday upon news of the fatal crash.

The rest of the Punongbayan children — Stauro, Eric, and Andaluz and granddaughter Bea — are still shocked by his death and could only say how proud they were of "Daddy." Punongbayan, or "RSP" as he was fondly known to associates and friends, including those in the media, was born in Tondo, Manila. He finished high school at Torres High School in Gagalangin,Tondo. He was a licensed geologist, having graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He later obtained his Ph.D in Geology from the University of Colorado in 1972. He was appointed director of Phivolcs in 1982.

Punongbayan was instrumental in making the concepts of volcanoes and earthquakes understandable to laymen thorough his clear explanations of technical terms. This he accomplished with the help of the many reporters he urged to undergo seminars and hands-on education on geologic and other natural hazards in the country, including volcanoes and the so-called earthquake generators. He also enjoined the Phivolcs volcanologists and seismologists, through government scholarships and other institutional grants, to further their studies and enhance expertise in their respective fields.

Through his efforts, Phivolcs produced educational materials on volcano monitoring, earthquake and natural hazards mitigation, and organized seminars and conferences that brought together local and international experts in the fields of volcanology, seismology and natural hazards mitigation. "He was very passionate about his work," Lulu told The STAR, recalling that her father was a "virtual resident" of his Phivolcs office, first in Hizon Building along Quezon Avenue, then in the Phivolcs Building at the UP-Diliman campus until his retirement at age 65 in 2003.

Lulu said her father could have gone somewhere else after his retirement, perhaps to become a consultant for the US or Japan. "But he chose to stay here as he wanted to do some more for the country," she said. As Phivolcs director, Punongbayan helped put the institute on the international map of volcanology and seismology after successfully predicting Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991. Awards, citations and accolades for both his scientific and management expertise came and continue to come due to Phivolcs’ continuing exemplary performance. The most significant awards he got were the 2001 national disaster Coordinating Council Special Citation Award, the NCRP Achievement Award for Earth Science in 1999, the 1998 Dioscoro L.

Umali Medal for Outstanding Science Administrator Award, Outstanding Professional in Geology granted by the Professional Regulation Commission in 1997, the 1996 Model Public Servant of the year and the 1996 Lingkod Bayan Presidential Awards. "He is the only Asian to have received the Sergei Solviev Medal in 2002 for his exceptional research and skills in mitigating natural hazards which led to the saving of thousands of lives during the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1992," his daughter Lulu added.

"Daddy died a poor man," she said, disclosing that they still live in the same apartment they have been renting for years now. "But he left us with the ‘wealth of his name’ and the principles he has always lived for and his passion for his work," Lulu told The STAR.

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