The man who owes his life to sardines

Tired, we sat on rocks and chatted over omelette sandwiches and bananas. There were no other hikers on the mountain that day, so the stunning views from the 1,400m peak were ours to enjoy. As we rested, Baebot told me the tale of Sardine Boy, a child who had cheated death nearly seven decades earlier when his hometown of Ilihan was destroyed by a violent volcanic eruption.

From our perch we could see a dark green scar of vegetation cutting down the eastern side of the mountain. Baebot pointed to a spot not too far from the volcano’s summit: There, he said, is where Sardine Boy’s village once stood.

“Do you know what happened to the boy?” I asked, unsure if the story was fact or folklore.

“Yes,” he replied matter-of-factly, through a mouthful of bread. “He lives at the bottom of the mountain now. We can visit him if you like.”

Several hours later, after making our way back to the foot of Hibok Hibok, I stood at the front door of 80-year-old Benito Aclo’s home, apologising profusely for my muddy shoes.

Aclo lives at the foot of the volcano that destroyed his village in 1951 (Credit: Credit: Jacob Maentz)

Aclo, a spritely man with a surprisingly boyish manner, warmly welcomed us and motioned for me to sit in an armchair in his cosy front room.

Some would consider living on the slopes of an active volcano to be perilous. What makes Aclo’s living situation remarkable, however, is that he lives in the shadow of the very volcano that, more than 60 years ago, wiped out his village and family.

Before sunrise on a December morning in 1951, 12-year-old Aclo left his home in Ilihan and headed down the mountain.

“I was the middle child and was often sent to fetch things,” he recalled. “That day, I had been sent down the mountain by my mother to buy tinned fish.”

As dawn broke, the ground rumbled, and, without warning, the volcano violently spewed molten rock and ash. Ilihan was quickly engulfed in a river of lava that killed everyone – including Aclo’s family – in its path.

“There was a lot of noise and smoke,” Aclo said. “I wanted to go back up the mountain. I thought I could save them.” Instead, Aclo was evacuated to nearby Davao City, Southern Mindanao.

The eruption is estimated to have killed anywhere between 500 to 3,000 islanders, although nobody is entirely sure of the death toll. Aclo was his village’s only survivor.

To this day, he is known as Sardine Boy ‒ the man who owes his life to tinned fish. He is simultaneously a tragic victim and fortuitous survivor.

I asked him how often he thinks about the family he lost.

“Every day,” he responded, his eyes shining with tears. “But especially on All Souls’ Day when people are visiting their dead. I have no family in the graveyard.”

On that front, Aclo is not alone. Volcanoes in the Philippines are some of the most deadly in the world: 13% of recorded eruptions have caused fatalities and many bodies are never recovered. Had I understood earlier that the vegetation stain Baebot pointed out was the final resting place of Aclo’s family, I might have taken a moment to acknowledge it in some small way.

On our way to Aclo’s home, Baebot and I had hiked down into the crater where Ilihan had once stood. Where I expected to find a barren scorched wasteland, I instead found a pocket teeming with life. Frogs croaked, birds chirped, bees thrummed and the air was heavy with the smell of the jungle.

Camiguin as a whole is abundant with acres of fertile lava soil that produce impressive crops; the lush island is famous in the Philippines for its particularly sweet lanzones, a lychee-like fruit whose sweetness is credited to the high mineral content of the volcanic soil.

The shores of Camiguin are also bountiful, both for fishermen and for divers who come for the rich marine life. One of the most popular places to snorkel is at a sunken cemetery; a burial site submerged by an eruption on Mount Vulcan back in the 1870s, where tropical fish dart back and forth between the headstones.

Like that of Camiguin, Aclo’s tale doesn’t have a tragic ending. He was eager to tell me his whole story, not just one sad chapter.

Aclo’s wife, with whom he raised seven children, recently passed away (Credit: Credit: Jacob Maentz)

Several years after the eruption, he returned to Camiguin, met his wife Gloria and had seven children. They were married for more than 60 years until her death last summer. Aclo keeps her photograph beside his chair. A gallery of other photographs portray a happy wedding day, children and grandchildren.

Surrounded by the faces of his loved ones, Sardine Boy smiled. Life, it seems, can resume and thrive in the most surprising places. 

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