More survivors, accident footage needed in probe-A A +A
Sunday, August 25, 2013
CEBU CITY -- As the second day of its fact-finding inquiry ended, the Special Board of Marine Inquiry (SBMI) still could not establish how two vessels collided off Talisay City last Aug. 16.
This is why the SBMI is calling on more survivors to show up at the Coast Guard Cebu City office and tell the board what they could recall about the night of the collision between St. Thomas Aquinas of 2GO Group and Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. (PSACC).
SBMI Chairman Gilbert Rueras is also calling on whoever happened to take and store footage of what happened that night to share it with the board.
“We still need to look for more details to eliminate gray areas. We need more information to establish facts surrounding the collision,” Rueras said.
The SBMI has two weeks to finish its task before it submits a report to Coast Guard Commandant Rodolfo Isorena, who in turn will submit it to Transportation and Communication Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya for approval.
Given this deadline, the SBMI is working double time to wrap up its inquiry. On Saturday, Rueras called it a day at 9:30 p.m., after 10 hours of questioning resource persons.
This is also why Rueras, while questioning M/V Sulpicio Express Siete’s Third Mate Boy Naby Manayaga, twice admonished the latter to be truthful and consistent in his statements so as not to further delay the proceedings.
“Just be honest. We are not here to impose sanctions on you. We just want to know what happened and why the two ships collided,” Rueras said after noting inconsistencies in Manayaga’s statements as to when he first contacted the 2GO vessel until the time it collided with Sulpicio’s cargo vessel.
Before the SBMI adjourned Saturdays’s session, PSACC lawyer Jaime Vibar asked the board to allow him to cross-examine all the resource persons who will be presented during the inquiry and examine transcripts of proceedings, citing due process.
Vibar feared that whatever information gathered during the inquiry might be used against his clients.
“Your worries are not our worries right now. Just let us do our job. If you think your concerns have not been addressed here, it will be in another forum. You still have the courts and the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina),” Rueras said in turning down Vibar’s manifestation.
The Marina has decided to hold its hearing in Cebu City instead of Ermita in Manila.
In an order dated Aug. 23, Marina Deputy Administrator for Operations Gloria Victoria-Banas said the hearing on Aug. 28 will be held in Cebu, as requested by Gov. Hilario Davide III.
“We at SBMI are only establishing the cause of the accident, and not who is at fault,” said Arnie Santiago, chief of the Marina Enforcement Office.
On the second day of the fact-finding hearing, six survivors told the panel they were not given a distress signal to abandon the Aquinas vessel, minutes after it collided with the Sulpicio Express Siete.
“We were just told not to panic though the ship was already sinking,” said Daisy Espiel, 48, of Pilar, Surigao del Norte.
Espiel, together with her two cousins, fought with other passengers to get life jackets. They were in the cabin when the ship shook violently and lost power.
Passengers pushed each other to get out from the narrow passageway, she narrated.
Espiel survived, but her cousins remain missing. They were supposed to go to Manila, where her cousins would then depart for Singapore.
Anna Lamoste, 24, of San Juan, Surigao City, told the SBMI that as the ship was going down, she saw three female crew members, wearing pink 2Go shirts, fixing their life jackets.
Lamoste, who was carrying her nine-month-old baby, asked for help, but the crew members didn’t respond. Her baby got separated from her and remains missing.
Some of the passengers also said the life jackets were not located near their beds, prompting others to jump into the water without any vests.
The survivors appealed to the authorities to continue the retrieval operations and speed up the release of DNA results, so the dead can be given a proper burial.
The death toll rose yesterday to 81, with 39 missing and 750 survivors.
In Saturday’s hearing, the SBMI asked the resource persons several times to establish if the officers of Aquinas heard the emergency signal that could have also alerted passengers.
Most of them said they didn’t hear it.
A sea marshal from the Philippine Coast Guard said he only heard the distress signal through a hand-held radio of one of the ship’s security personnel, ten minutes after impact.
“It was only shouted by others,” said Police Officer 2 Joseph Austria, when the panel asked if the information was spread among the passengers. A sea marshal is a law enforcement officer who boards, escorts and helps maintain control of vessels.
He narrated he heard three loud thuds and went to the deck to check, where he saw the Sulpicio vessel.
And then the lights went off and the crowd began to panic. Austria helped give life jackets to the passengers.
Austria survived after he was rescued by a fisherman and brought to Barangay Tanke, Talisay City.
“I did what I could but everything happened so fast,” he said.
During his turn, navy marshal Richard Pestillos recalled how he helped passengers.
He recalled that the information desk announced, one hour before the accident, for passengers who were disembarking in Cebu City to get ready.
The collision occurred while he was in the ship’s canteen having coffee.
“Many jumped overboard, but got killed,” Pestillos said, adding some of those who jumped fractured their arms and legs.
As the ship was sinking, the water began to pull him under, but he found a life raft.
Pestillos plucked out seven people, including two children, and they were helped by a motorized banca past 1 a.m.
During the hearing, he revealed the distress signal to abandon ship was made about 10 minutes after the accident.
Asked what he could recommend to the shipping company, Pestillos said there should be easier access to the life jackets and the crew should demonstrate how to use them properly.
After the lunch break, the Aquinas vessel’s Third Mate Warlito Canillo took the witness stand. (The third mate keeps watch over the bridge and machinery.)
Canillo corroborated the statement of Reynan Bermejo, the captain of the Aquinas, that the Sulpicio cargo vessel was occupying the inbound lane, although it was supposed to be outbound.
They contacted the oncoming vessel, but got no response.
Asked if they conducted emergency drills, Canillo said they do it weekly, among the crew.
But Marina’s Santiago asked what’s the use of a crowd simulation drill, if there are no passengers involved.
Among the resource persons on Saturday was Lester Leoncio, one of the on-duty deck cadets of the Aquinas.
He narrated he was so nervous that he went ahead to get the life jackets even before the order to abandon ship was issued. Leoncio said he gave the life jackets to the passengers who were on the starboard (right) side.
“Magaling kang bata (Good job),” said Captain Nestor Perrero of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, who is part of the five-man panel.
Commodore Rueras, the SBMI chairman, asked the apprentice to remember how he survived the accident.
“Gamitin mo ang mga natutunan mo sa nangyari kapag officer ka na ha? (When you become an officer, use what you learned from this),” he told Leoncio. (With Elias O. Baquero and Rianne C. Tecson/Sun.Star Cebu)
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 26, 2013.