Navy honors 90 technical divers-A A +A
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
THE Naval Forces Central (Navforcen) yesterday gave plaques of recognition to technical divers who helped in the search and retrieval operations after the passenger vessel M/V St. Thomas Aquinas sank five weeks ago.
More than 90 technical divers from the Naval Special Operations Unit, Police Regional Office 7, Philippine Coast Guard, Naval Construction Brigade and private diving groups helped retrieve bodies from the shipwreck.
Representatives of the different units and diving groups attended the awarding ceremony at the Navforcen in Lapu-Lapu City past 7 a.m. yesterday.
“This is a just simple token but I hope it will be very valuable to them,” Commodore Reynaldo Yoma, Navforcen commander, said in an interview.
Also yesterday, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Cebu Station Commander Weniel Azcuna said the Malayan Towage and Salvage Corp. has finished siphoning the 11 tanks and two compartments from the Aquinas.
The tanks and compartments were retrieved from the vessel last Thursday yet.
When the Aquinas collided with M/V Sulpicio Express Siete last Aug. 16, it was carrying 20,000 liters of diesel fuel, 120,000 liters of bunker or crude fuel and 20,000 liters of lube oil.
About 750 survived the collision. The search for survivors and fatalities immediately proceeded, along with the effort to contain an oil spill that reached Cordova town’s shores.
At the Navforcen ceremony yesterday, Commodore Yoma said the divers should get recognition for devoting their time and resources and risking their lives to help retrieve bodies from the vessel.
The tragedy killed at least 116 passengers and crew members. At least 21 persons remain missing.
Yoma said the divers have already entered 85 percent of the vessel’s passenger areas.
“The other 15 percent is impassable because of the heavy debris. Right now, the circumstances do not allow us to do further diving operations,” he said.
Bernil Gastardo, 40, a member of the Filipino Cave Divers, said he still thinks of the passengers whose bodies remain inside the vessel.
“We’re hoping to go back soon and retrieve those bodies,” he said in an interview.
The Philippine Coast Guard temporarily stopped the retrieval operations while the fuel inside the vessel was siphoned.
Gastardo, who has been diving for 20 years, asked the families of the missing victims to pray and to not lose hope. He said he and the other divers may retrieve, if not the bodies, personal items owned by the victims and give these to the families.
Gastardo said the hardest part of their task is seeing the bodies.
“The diving part is easy. We’re trained to do that. But we are not trained to look at dead bodies, and these are bodies that have been in the water for quite some time,” he said.
Lieutenant Josephus Dimaunahan, one of the technical divers of the Naval Special Operations Group, said the divers are ready to go back to the shipwreck anytime.
Dimaunahan said he has joined four retrieval operations in the past. “Ito yong pinakamahirap at pinakamalaki (This one is the hardest and the biggest operation),” he said.
Poby Han, 36, who owns a diving shop in Lapu-Lapu, said he was glad that he was able to help bring bodies of the victims to their families.
In August last year, he joined operations to retrieve the bodies of Interior and Local Government Sec. Jesse Robredo, Capt. Jessup Bahinting and Nepalese flight student Kshitiz Chand when their plane crashed into the waters off Masbate.
In a command conference at City Hall yesterday, Commander Azcuna said a total of 4,480 liters of bunker fuel and oil were recovered. Of that, 2,180 liters of bunker fuel came from the tanks, while 2,300 liters of oil came from the compartments.
Azcuna said the siphoning operations by Malayan Towage resumed yesterday afternoon to recover the last two compartments from the vessel.
From Friday until Sunday, bad weather forced the suspension of operations.
Asked what they will do next once the siphoning operations will be completed, Azcuna said PCG will assess if the retrieval operations for the bodies should resume.
The area that the technical divers have yet to explore is on the left side of the vessel.
Aside from the retrieval of bodies, Azcuna said PCG together with the Cebu Ports Authority and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will also assess if there is a need to salvage the Aquinas, which lies 100 to 120 feet below the surface.
“We will assess if the vessel poses a hazard to navigation or threat to marine life,” he said.
2Go had already said in an earlier interview that they will be salvaging their vessel.
Meanwhile, the 47 unidentified bodies retrieved from Aquinas that remain in the custody of the Cosmpolitan Funeral Homes will be buried tomorrow at the Carreta Cemetery.
The funeral service will start at 8 a.m. with an ecumenical service that will be officiated by Archbishop Jose Palma, Msgr. Roberto Alesna and Bishop Joy Bendoy.
As of yesterday, Bong Ebo of Cosmopolitan said the four-storey niches for the unidentified bodies were almost complete.
Ebo, whom 2Go commissioned to construct the structure, said they prepared a total of 60 niches, anticipating that at least 50 percent of the bodies of the missing passengers will still be retrieved.
Ebo said the whole structure, which is built on a 35-square-meter property in Carreta Cemetery, will be completed today.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on September 24, 2013.