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10M people join peaceful Nazareno festivities; no deaths, major injuries

(Updated 11:48 a.m.) With 10 million impassioned participants, the Nazareno fiesta on Thursday was a nerve-wracking security nightmare, a disaster waiting to happen. 
It didn't happen. 
After 19 hours and 6.75 winding, zig-zag kilometers, the wooden sacred image of the Black Nazarene was escorted home to Quiapo Church early Friday morning without a single fatality or major injury.

If the 10 million estimated by church officials can be validated, it would be the largest Nazareno crowd on record, greater than the nine million last year. That would include the three million devotees who filled Luneta for the mass Thursday morning, as well as spectators who lined the route.

Father Anton Pascual, president of the church-run Radio Veritas, attributes the large turnout this year to the disasters that struck the country in 2013, as well as persistent poverty and reports of corruption that have filled headlines. "Kaya ang mga tao lumalapit sa Diyos," said Pascual, adding that media coverage also helped boost the crowd. TV networks covered the event live for much of the day, with online sites providing livestream coverage.

The Feast of the Nazarene is already among the world's largest public gatherings, but it wasn't always so.
An aerial photo taken from a drone shows an estimated one million devotees as they start the Traslacion of the Black Nazarene at the Quirino Grandstand early Thursday morning, January 9. The procession will snake through major streets in Manila on its way to Quiapo Church. Photo by Raffy Tima
As recently as the 2004 Nazareno Feast, just ten years ago, the event attracted a mere 300,000, according to data compiled by GMA News Research. But the crowds have steadily grown to millions.

Six have died in the ten previous processions, with many injured by the crush of the crowd. 

This year, the Philippine National Red Cross assisted 854 devotees, 12 of whom were brought to the hospital, PNRC secretary general Gwendolyn Pang said in an interview on "Unang Balita." None of the injuries were serious.

“Maganda yung nangyari this year, kahit na mas mahaba yung ruta, mas mabilis yung takbo dahil stable yung andas at mas maganda yung traffic management. [Dahil dito] hindi masyadong nahirapan yung first aid at medical teams,” she said.

In 2012, one of the wheels of the carriage carrying the statue broke, delaying the procession, which had also been hounded that year by a threat of terrorist attack.

Powerful CCTV cameras

Authorities breathed a sigh of relief when the procession arrived at Quiapo Church before dawn on Friday without major incident. There was no apparent threat this year, yet the MMDA installed new CCTV cameras which could zoom in on faces and other details along the route.
The most threatening incident was probably the near-stampede that disrupted the Luneta Mass celebrated by Cardinal Tagle Thursday morning, as devotees rushed the stage where the sacred statue was on display. The mass was finished away from the crush of devotees, as organizers blamed a weak sound system that prevented them from controlling the crowd.

“Nagloloko ang sound system kaya hindi masyadong narinig ng mga mamamasan kaya tuluy-tuloy sila sa pag-akyat sa grandstand. Hindi nila napansin na hindi pa tapos ang misa. Tuloy-tuloy na yung momentum kaya hindi na napigilan,” Fr. Pascual said.

For next year, aside from a more powerful sound system and more security, Pascual said the Church should be more focused on instilling in the minds of the people the importance of the mass.

“The sacrament is more supreme than any form of religious devotion, kaya dapat unahin muna ang misa, magsimba sila, makinig sa homily, mag-communion sila, at saka ituloy ang prusisyon na may disiplina at kaayusan,” he said.

Unlike last year, the organizers succeeded in making the devotees follow the new route through the Jones Bridge.

Around midday, some devotees managed to push away heavy container vans blocking MacArthur Bridge, the old route, yet the procession crossed the nearby Jones Bridge anyway, the new route. Organizers feared that the MacArthur Bridge, which needs repair, would not be able to hold the densely packed procession.

MacArthur Bridge was last retrofitted in 1991 while Jones Bridge was rehabilitated in 2007.

Security personnel conspicuously did not apply force even when participants became unruly, knowing that the size and zeal of the crowd could easily overpower whatever stood in their way.
— Howie Severino and Amita Legaspi/RSJ/LBG, GMA News