Sewol sinking and our experience

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014


WEDNESDAY last week, the South Korean vessel, Sewol, sank while ferrying more than 400 passengers, mostly high school children and teachers, from the port of Incheon to the island of Jeju. Only 174 have been rescued; the others are feared to have drowned.

Teams of divers are working feverishly but the search and retrieval operation is hampered by, according to one account, “dark, cold waters.” So far, they have retrieved only 14 bodies. It will probably take many more days for them to account for all the missing passengers, if at all.

The Sewol sinking brings back memories of the maritime disaster that occurred less than two kilometers from the coast of Talisay City on Aug. 16, last year. The M/V St. Thomas Aquinas was approaching the port of Cebu when it collided with M/V Sulpicio Express Siete. Thomas Aquinas was a passenger ferry; Sulpicio Express was a cargo vessel.

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The Aquinas of 2GO Shipping was carrying 715 passengers and 118 crew members at the time of the collision. While most of the passengers were rescued, a number went down with the ship. As in the Sewol incident, finding the bodies and bringing them to the surface was agonizingly slow and difficult.

The similarities between the two incidents end there. Whereas the Sewol sinking sparked a massive public outcry in South Korea, our reaction to the Aquinas disaster was comparatively muted. The hearts of all South Koreans have been broken with shock and anger, according to the South Korean President, Park Guen-Hye. I do not recall any public official reacting in like manner to the Aquinas tragedy.

In fact, Park did more than just grieve with his people. He went further to accuse the Sewol’s captain and crew of having acted in a manner “tantamount to murder.” What was even more remarkable was that within days after the sinking, the captain and his crew were already in jail.

In stark contrast, not a single official dared accuse the officers and crew of either the Aquinas or the Sulpicio Express of having acted in an “utterly incomprehensible (and) unacceptable” way. On the contrary, Philippine maritime officials were so solicitous of the safety of the two ship captains that they barred the media from taking videos or photographs of these men.

If the collision had occurred in Korea or some other law-abiding territories,the two captains and their crew would have been jailed immediately. But not in the Philippines, where the government men tasked with the duty of protecting the safety and interests of ship passengers, shamelessly lawyered for the shipping companies by saying that there was no basis to detain the ship officials.

So it was that while jeepney drivers routinely have their licenses confiscated when their vehicles figure in a traffic accident even when there isn’t as much as a resulting slight physical injury, the captains and crew of the Aquinas and the Sulpicio Express were insulated from any such consequence. In fact, at least one of them (I do not know which) was back on his captain’s seat even while the bodies of many of the sinking victimes were still lying unclaimed.

Ah yes, a Special Board of Marine Inquiry was constituted to investigate the collision. But woe of woes, today, less than four months before the first anniversary of the Aquinas sinking, the SBMI has not made known the results of its inquiry. What a travesty!

There is one fact that I missed to mention about the Sewol tragedy. The assistant school principal, who accompanied the children but survived the sinking, committed suicide two or three days after the Sewol touched the sea’s bottom.

Of course, nobody will do such a thing in thick-face-dominated Philippines.

(frank.otherside@yahoo.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on April 24, 2014.

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