With reporting and interview by Aldrich D. Rosano from Cadiz City
BACOLOD CITY – It happened two days before the 34th commemoration of the Escalante Massacre, three days before the country marks Martial Law 47 years ago.
The incident report of the Cadiz Bureau of Fire Protection on 17 September 2019 reads in part: “8:52 AM. Jimboy Despues, houseboy of Eddie Boy Varela witnessed smoke from the house.”
At around the same time, Cadiz city resident Mawe Garganera calls the local fire station about the blaze at the “Gustilo ancestral house” in hacienda Hortencia in the village of Daga.
On Google map, the place is 63.2 kilometers away from here. In Cadiz, you will notice it to your left when you round a bend after a transloading station.
Armin Gustilo was a strongman, loved by some, vilified by others. He was close to Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the implementor of Martial Law whose reign for decades over the country reduced the once mighty sugar bloc into a nominal political force.
Armin, Toto Armin to some, was installed by Marcos as governor of the short-lived Negros del Norte, mocked by some critics as Negros del Karne Norte.
When yellow swept the country with the presidency of Corazon C. Aquino, Armin was loathed as a relic of the dark past, the house a symbol of excesses and iron-fist rule in Negros Occidental.
Jerald Bugtong, the arson investigator, was the second to arrive at the scene at around 8:40am, only minutes behind Fire Officer 3 Ranniel Basco.
Bugtong reported seeing only half of the two-storey house when he arrived on scene.
Strong winds and the light materials the house was made of made the blaze spread quickly, gutting the once imposing structure only in minutes.
It was around 9:50am when the fire was declared “under control,” 25 minutes after firefighters hosed it down with water from six firetrucks, three from the local BFP and three from a volunteer firefighting brigade.
By 10:55 AM, the BFP declared a “fire out.”
Evangeline Ramos told arson probers she left a wooden fire burning when she brought her three grandchildren to school.
It was 6:30 AM, she said.
In the mansion that once hosted grand soirees and balls and where the most powerful people in the land and province met, power had already been cut before the house burned down.
No one was hurt or killed.
Only the facade of the house now stands and damage was estimated at P2 million.