Dive skills for retrieval ops urged
Grace Melanie L. Lacamiento (The Freeman) - August 16, 2014 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines -  A year after the tragic collision between 2GO’s MV St. Thomas Aquinas and PSACC’s cargo ship MV Sulpicio Express Siete, divers and volunteers who led the search and rescue operations remain hopeful that people concerned will not lose sight of the face that there are still bodies of victims that have not been found.

Twenty one bodies are feared to remain trapped in the ill-fated MV St. Thomas Aquinas and the Philippine Coast Guard said the only way these can be retrieved is by salvaging the vessel. The passenger ship sank at the Lawis Ledge when it hit MV Sulpicio Express Siete.

Should this be done, Navy Lt. Commander Noel Escalona, who served as operations officer of the Naval Forces Central (NAVFORCEN) during the retrieval operations, suggested that it be done soonest to avoid possible dangers especially that the sinking site is located in a busy shipping lane.

Escalona will soon leave NAVFORCEN and return to the Philippine Fleet.

Jake Miranda, lead diver of Filipino Cave Divers, agrees with Escalona, suggesting that the best way to salvage the sunken ship is to cut it up underwater for easy retrieval. He said this process would be easier compared to using cranes and salvage flotation bags to fish the 12,000-ton ship out of sea.

“There are only a handful of cranes in the world capable of lifting her straight from the bottom. Besides, this part of the channel will need to be closed or restricted during any salvage operation,” Miranda said.

At present, Miranda is one of the few trained Filipino public safety divers who helped organize the diving procedures during the search and rescue operations last year.  He explained that the ship wreck lies 50 meters deep at the bottom of the sea with its bridge as the most accessible part at 25 meters.

The impact area that started right beneath the right smokestack was measured at approximately 20 meters by 10 meters including the part that was grazed. The ship is heading north northwest at 340 degrees, and leaning at the left by 60 degrees on its portside.

Guide

The fatal accident was unquestionably devastating but to a certain extent has brought the best out of many people.

For Miranda and Escalona’s part, for example, the two have worked together to create a diving manual for joint retrieval operations.

“This could help us to be better prepared the next time we are needed,” Miranda said, adding, that the rescue operations last year made authorities realize that a specialized training is required for divers who participate in a search and retrieval mission.

Many technical divers have volunteered to participate in the operation last year but only a few were qualified wreck and cave divers who could go access a ship safely to recover bodies. Likewise, only a few divers had the experience of recovering cadavers.

Miranda emphasized the need for public safety diving procedures and training so that government divers will be fully-equipped to handle recovery of human remains. He said he is hopeful that the vessel traffic scheme should be implemented sooner.

The quick establishment of the Naval Task Group St Thomas Aquinas-Retrieval (NTG STA-R) resulted to the immediate response of divers and volunteers.

Escalona described the retrieval operations as a technical challenge for members of both the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy who conducted a total of 71 dives from August 17 to September 19 last year.

“There were prevailing strong winds, the depth was beyond recreational scuba diving limits and few technical divers were qualified to dive in such conditions,” he shared.

The depth of the water also did not make it easy for divers to reach the sunken vessel.

He cited that the elevated partial pressures of the breathing gas could create a “narcotic effect” on the divers, which could affect their decision-making ability underwater.

Divers also need to consider the debris like vending machines, steel bunks, chairs, mattresses and luggage of passengers that have blocked the passageways.

To make it worse, the biological contamination from decomposing bodies and the presence of crude oil posed a life-threatening danger to divers who had to undergo medical and psychological tests after being exposed to what they described as the worst contaminated water environment.

However, the strong sense of volunteerism overruled and proved to be a powerful force multiplier during the underwater operations.

“With the limited number of qualified divers for wreck penetration, we knew we had to help since nobody else could do it,” Miranda said.  —/JMO (FREEMAN)

COMMANDER NOEL ESCALONA DIVERS ESCALONA FILIPINO CAVE DIVERS FOR MIRANDA AND ESCALONA JAKE MIRANDA LAWIS LEDGE MIRANDA OPERATIONS SULPICIO EXPRESS SIETE
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