21 missing, probe still pending
Grace Melanie L. Lacamiento (The Freeman) - August 15, 2014 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines - Missing bodies and an unfinished case.

A day before the first year anniversary of the tragic collision between MV St. Thomas Aquinas of 2GO Group Inc. and MV Sulpicio Express Siete of the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, a total of 21 bodies have yet to be retrieved and the administrative case against the shipping companies is still pending.

St. Thomas Aquinas collided with the Sulpicio Express Siete on the evening of
August 16, 2013. The ferry was carrying 832 passengers and crew when it collided with the cargo vessel at Lawis Ledge, a dangerous choke point off Talisay City.

The ferry sank minutes after the collision to a depth of 50 meters, according to divers who checked the vessel last year.

The St. Thomas Aquinas was headed to Cebu from Butuan City. The 9,691-gross ton Sulpicio Express 7 that was sailing the opposite direction was bound for Davao City. The collision occurred at about 8:45 PM.

The ferry had 20,000 liters of diesel fuel and 120,000 liters of bunker or crude fuel in its fuel tank and 20,000 liters of lube oil.

Philippine Coast Guard Central Visayas District chief of staff and spokesperson Commander Weniel Azcuna said that based on their last count, there were 116 casualties and 733 survivors of the ill-fated incident.

He said the coast guard still needs to verify with 2GO if all of the bodies that were retrieved have already been identified since these were all turned over to the shipping company.

So far, he said, family members of those who have been declared missing have not approached the PCG. Azcuna believes that the bodies of the 21 who are still missing are inside the sunken vessel and that the only way for these bodies to be retrieved is to salvage the sunken vessel.

Since the collision last year, the PCG has sent three demand letters to 2GO Shipping Lines for them to arrange the salvaging of the sunken ship as suggested by the PCG for safety reasons since the area where the ferry lies is where vessels entering and leaving the port of Cebu usually pass.

“Mao na ang atong apprehension nga di ta makasiguro nga unsa’y naa pa sa ilawom nga possible molutaw,” he said.

Last May, the PCG received a report from 2GO stating that the shipping company hired experts to survey the condition of the sunken vessel who then declared that there is no need to salvage it from its current location.

Azcuna said the PCG is still assessing if it is indeed safe to leave the sunken vessel as it is but pointed out that the demand letter sent to 2GO clearly stated that the shipping company will be held liable for any untoward incident that may happen resulting to their failure of retrieving the sunken ship.

Last year, a Special Board of Marine Inquiry was activated to investigate the collision. The board was composed of five members from the PCG, one from the Maritime Industry Authority, one from the Philippine Ports Authority, a ship captain from a private sector and a marine engineer. The results of the investigation have already been submitted to the Board of Marine Inquiry in Manila for review.

The final report of the BMI, Azcuna said, was given to the shipping companies involved for their appeal.

“They just have to abide with the recommendations from the final report of BMI,” he said.

The authorities concluded the retrieval operations last October when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Central Visayas. All plans for further operations were terminated after super typhoon Yolanda battered the Visayas.

Azcuna also explained that the termination of the search operations was due to the safety of the divers. He said that the technical divers reported that all of the areas in sunken vessel have already been searched except for the part where debris from the vessel got piled up.  The area, he said, is very dangerous for divers.

Meanwhile, Maritime Industry Authority in Central Visayas (Marina-7) legal officer Jose Cabatingan III said that the administrative case on the suspension/cancellation of the certification of public convenience of the involved shipping companies is still pending.

A hearing is scheduled to take place on August 29 at the Marina Central Office in Manila.

Marina conducted a separate investigation to determine criminal liability and to find out if the vessel franchise of the concerned ship owners should be revoked.

“Naay terms and conditions supposedly i-follow sa grantee sa certificate of public convenience which is the safety of passengers onboard. So kon naa’y possible violation ana, it’s a ground for cancellation or suspension,” Cabatingan said.

Azcuna assured the aggrieved family members and victims themselves their full assistance in filing a case against the two shipping companies in terms of criminal negligence. But, he said, no one has approached the PCG to file a complaint on the incident.

“Rest assured, PCG is doing its best to find the real cause of this incident and hopefully we can prevent similar incidents from happening again in the future especially at the Cebu Mactan channel,” he stated.  


The first responders

45-year-old fisherman Junie Villareal from Sitio Sambangan, Barangay Tangke in Talisay was among those who responded to calls for help when the two ships collided.

He said that he still remembers exactly how he was able to rescue seven passengers including a two-year-old baby.

“Luoy kaayo ang bata pagtabang nako. Halos dili na katingog,” he shared.

He said that he found the child under a life raft that flipped over, adding that the baby was choked by his life jacket, which was too tight for him.

Villareal recalled that he and other fishermen were hanging out along the sea shore when the collision happened.

He said that their natural instincts pushed them to ride their boats and sail towards the site. Without any hesitation, over 100 fishermen from the four sitios in Barangay Tangke gathered to help the passengers. These fishermen came from Sitio Sambagan, Sitio Salvador, Sitio Magay, and Sitio Rattan.

They started the rescue operations past 9 PM and ended at 2 AM.

All of the rescued passengers were brought to shore and were attended to by the locals in the community, were given a bath since they were all covered with crude oil, and were given a change of clothes.

Some of those rescued, Villareal recalled, were crying while others remained quiet, apparently from shock.

Some victims were brought to the house of the barangay captain and were then fetched by 2GO personnel.  Other survivors who were wounded were immediately sent to the hospital.

“Daghang patay pud nanglutaw pero ang among gisiguro kay luwason ang mga buhi pa ug madala sa  baybayon. Lisod na. Kinabuhi na gud na,” he said.

He said that he could not forget the ill-fated incident since it was the first sea accident he witnessed.

It has been one year but up to now, Villareal could still remember how the locals suffered after the incident.

He said that people that time were hesitant to buy fish from them, afraid that they will be poisoned because of the oil spill.

Most of the families in Barangay Tangke depend on fishing as their primary source of livelihood.

He even shared that when they rescued the victims, the gasoline they used to fuel their pump boats were just loaned from a neighbor.

“Amo tong gasto, inutang pa gyud para lang makatabang mi,” he said. He used up P600 worth of gasoline during the rescue operations.

Naomi Badajos, who sells gasoline to the fishermen, said that she does not recall anymore how many liters of fuel were used up for the rescue operations and how much her neighbors owe her. She said she no longer bothered collecting the payment for gasoline used up that night.

“Og na’y mobayad mas maayo. Og wa, ang Ginoo ra ang masayod. Padayon na lang. Ang importante nakatabang mi,” she said.

Villareal said that up to now, the refund that was promised by the shipping company had not reached them and even the local government did not provide financial assistance to the affected community.

“Nakadawat ra og P500 ug bugas gikan sa barangay, mao ra gyud. Unya pila mi ka buwan wa managat kay wa may mopalit,” he said.

Both Badajos and Villareal remain hopeful, along with other locals, that the government and the involved shipping companies shall finally extend aid to their community. 

Tales of horror

A year after the tragic collision, stories of cries and screams near the area haunt the residents in the barangay.

Some residents in Barangay Tangke shared that there were fishermen who heard cries for help near the area where the St. Thomas Aquinas sank.

Villareal, however, refuted the rumors, saying that these are not true.  

“Wa’y ungo. Di mi motuo ana kay storya ra man pud na. Kanang kita mismo makasuway gyud,” he said. — /QSB (FREEMAN)



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