The PGH fire and the many faces of heroism

The ten recipients of the Order of Lapu-Lapu (Kamagi Rank) with PGH Director Gerardo Legaspi: [L-R] Ms. Katrina Macababad, Ms. Phoebe Malabanan, Ms. Esmeralda Ninto, Dr. Alexandra Lim, Dr. Earle Abrenica, Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, Mr. Romel Rano, Dr. Rodney Dofitas, Mr. Joel Santiago, Mr. Quintin Bagay, and Mr. Jomar Mallari.



On 2 June 2021, ten personnel of the Philippine General Hospital were awarded the Order of Lapu-Lapu by President Rodrigo R. Duterte at the Malacanang Palace for their dedication to duty during the PGH fire incident on May 16. 

The Order of Lapu-Lapu is a national order of merit given by the President of the Philippines in recognition of invaluable acts of service to the country. 

The awardees are Dr. Rodney B. Dofitas, head of the Manpower Support, PGH COVID Crisis Team; Mr. Joel L. Santiago, safety officer; Mr.  Romel G. Ranoa, security guard; residents Dr. Alexandra P. Lee and Dr. Earle Ceo D. Abrenica; and nurses Mr. Quintin P. Bagay Jr.,  Mr. Jomar T. Mallari, Ms. Kathrina Bianca C. Macababbad,  Ms. Phoebe Rose C. Malabanan, and Ms. Esmeralda E. Ninto.

We have to add to these names a long list of personnel and patient companions who performed small and great deeds that fateful night, transforming the catastrophe into a victimless accident. They are all heroes.

The fire which broke out  at the Operating Room Sterilization Area (ORSA) on the third floor of the hospital could have caused wild panic and degenerated  into chaos and injured individuals. However, since the PGH staff regularly engage in fire and earthquake drills every year, the evacuation was hurriedly, yet, orderly done.

According to eyewitnesses, everyone who could help with the evacuation, did: health personnel, firemen, security guards, even patients, and their watchers.  The patients were evacuated to the PGH Chapel, ground floor corridors, quadrangle, and driveway of the hospital complex. These included all 35 babies from the  Neonatal Intesive Care Unit (NICU). Around 100 COVID-19 patients from the central block area were moved to the parking lot (adults) or to a separate part of the chapel (children). 

All people who contributed to the safety of everyone on that fateful day were heroes.


Perseverance and endurance in the face of overwhelming obstacles

Dr. Dofitas, off duty that night, called the PGH Crisis Team when he heard the commotion about the fire and saw black smoke in the corridor leading to the ORSA. Personnel, with the help of security guards tried to douse the fire. They also alerted the PGH residents nearby and started evacuating the patients. The OR nurse called the operator, who then called the Fire Department. Dr. Dofitas, in recounting the incident during the Stop COVID Deaths Webinar #53, was emphatic in saying that those actions were not random. They were informed by years of training and drills coordinated with the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) as part of the hospital’s Disaster and Evacuation Plan, the UP Manila Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, and the COVID Crisis System.  Dr. Dofitas monitored the crisis response until Dr. Legaspi arrived. 

Mr. Santiago, despite undergoing a robotic operation earlier in the day, got moving as soon as Dr. Dofitas informed him of the emergency. Dr. Dofitas directed the floor nurses and the security guards to evacuate the patients from 4th-7th floors. Some of the guards acted as marshals so that no one panicked.   

The firefighters cordoned off the disaster area and, using the floor plan provided by the Office of the Engineering and Technical Services, sent teams up the hospital to make sure that everyone had evacuated. With Dr. Dofitas and Mr. Santiago, they planned how to approach the fire from three  different areas. Dr. Dofitas repeatedly described the firefighters as “the true heroes”.   

While the firefighting happened, Drs.  Legaspi and Dofitas with a group of other doctors went around to save some operating room equipment. 

The NICU nurses evacuated the babies. The healthy ones were carried down by the nurses inside large pockets of their  special “kangaroo vests” and were taken to the chapel. Then, nurses Macababbad and Mallari repeatedly went up and down the stairs from the first to the fourth floors, because elevators could not be used during a fire, to transfer the intubated newborns in mechanical ventilators.

Dir. Legaspi, before setting up the Incident Command Station in his office,  evaluated  what the people and the hospital needed. He was  briefed by Dr. April Llaneta, head of Emergency Medicine Department and proceeded to visit all the areas where the patients were evacuated; went to the fire-hit area before inspecting each floor. He called his deputy directors;  tied-up with the Philippine Red Cross for ambulances in case of patient transfer; called up Engineering to send a team who’ll inform Dr. Dofitas, Mr. Santiago, and the firefighters how the electricity, plumbing, and gas will be affected by their work; coordinated with the nursing teams; directed Dietary to make contingency plans for the meals of the patients; contacted PGH Property Office to establish the supply chain for oxygen tanks for the patients; and sent calls for large industrial fans to drive out thick smoke from the corridors. 

After endorsing the Incident Command Center to Dr. Llaneta, Dir. Legaspi focused on  asset management. He estimated the damage to equipment with possible structural damage to the hospital to reach more than a hundred million pesos. As of this writing, the cause of the incident is still undetermined. 

When the hospital was deemed safe by the firefighters, most of the patients were moved back to their areas. The COVID-19 patients were transferred temporarily to the intensive care unit of the PGH’s charity wards and the obstetric department’s emergency room until their wards were clean and safe.  

On June 21, at the PGH Atrium, the BFP awarded Dr. Rodney Dofitas and Mr. Joel Santiago the Medalya ng Papuri for “having shown skillfulness and exemplary performance of duty as First Fire Responders which resulted in the saving of lives and all patients and other personnel who were in the area…” 

The BFP gave Letters of Commendation to other hospital staff for their “dynamic competence and support as Fire Rescue Responders” to the BFP personnel “which successfully resulted in the immediate extinguishment of fire and lessened the damages to the other areas of the sanitorium and the orderly return of the patients to their respective hospital rooms…” The honorees were composed of 8 physician team leaders, the 11-member Evacuation Team (which also included Dr. Dofitas), the 6-member Salvage and Rescue Responders (which included Dir. Legaspi), and Dr. April B. Llaneta.  

The honors were given during the “Resbakuna Kasangga ng Bida” ceremony where  the BFP gave a Token of Appreciation to PGH for vaccinating its personnel.  


Concern for the Well-being of Others

For those keeping watch on social media from May 16 until the following days, the civic response was amazing.  

Nearby hospitals lent a hand—12 babies were taken in by Sta. Ana Hospital while four were moved to Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Center. Two patients who needed appendectomy went to Ospital ng Maynila. Some patients, upon their request, were sent to private hospitals. 

The Manila Collegian and the UP Office of the Student Regent posted calls for donations on their social media accounts. UPM faculty who are also serving at the hospital repeated the calls on their accounts. 

As early as 1:30 a.m., a faculty of the College of Human Kinetics (in Diliman) alerted his community and friends, then drove to PGH with bottled water donations.

At 3:43 am, Vice President  Leni Robredo posted on Twitter asking for  large industrial fans to be lent to PGH to help clear away the smoke from the corridors. Leo Lagon of Bayo saw the tweet and contacted Jasper Ong of Hanabishi who coordinated with PGH and sent industrial fans. By mid-day, more fan donations came in from the public. The Philippine Red Cross  brought in smoke evacuators to remove the smell and the toxic gases. 

A PGH nurse known only as bellepepper01 posted on the Vice President’s twitter thread asking help for extra oxygen tanks for some of the babies and the VP promised to help.  

Dr. Rosario Abaya-Blas, an intern in 1989 , was one of PGH’s earliest donors and  dropped off boxes of KN95 masks.

The UP-PGH Human Milk Bank Center posted “Operation Foster Milk” for the admitted premature and sick babies. 

Recently, the India Business Forum Philippines Association Inc. donated Php 1 million pesos in cash and Php 12 million pesos worth of medicines for the NICU. 

Dir. Legaspi found overwhelming all the public and government support. In the Stop COVID Deaths Webinar, he said that the only way to repay this support is for PGH to do better in its work.  [Fedelynn Jemena] 



  • ·Stop COVID Deaths Webinar 53 “MAY SUNOG! Ligtas na Paglikas sa Panahon ng COVID-19”

  • Reports from the ABS-CBN News, DZBB, CNN Philippines, Inquirer, Manila Bulletin, Philippine News Agency, Rappler, The Philippine Star; and the Twitter posts of Manila Collegian, UP Office of the Student Regent, UPM University Student Council, Tulong Kabataan-UP Manila, VP Leni Robredo,  Manila Public Information Office,  bellepepper01, Dr. Ronnie Baticulon, Dr. Nemencio Nicodemus Jr, and Dr. Teodoro Herbosa Jr.


Featured in the UP Manila Healthscape (Special COVID-19 Issue No. 28, 30 June 2021)