It’s been an unspeakable heartbreak for families of the 14 fishermen missing from their boat’s collision with a Hong Kong-flagged cargo vessel, now that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has terminated its search and rescue operations and shifted to search and retrieval.
PCG Commandant Vice Admiral George Ursabia Jr. told reporters last July 3, nearly a week after the incident, that none of the 12 fishermen and two passengers of Liberty 5 are presumed to have survived the collision.
“After three days, if you are unable to find them, then they are presumed dead. But of course, we really don’t know. By miracle, it is possible that they are still alive,” said Ursabia.
Was there criminal neglect on the part of the bulk carrier Vienna Wood to undertake a rescue soon after it hit the fishing vessel, when every minute was critical for survival?
Per Ursabia’s account, the collision happened at about 10:20 p.m. on June 27, Saturday, in waters off Occidental Mindoro. Liberty 5, a 45-meter fishing vessel with 14 on board, was headed to the Navotas fish port from Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi carrying 4,000 tons of fish, when it was hit by Vienna Wood, a 31,540-ton bulk carrier registered in China-administered Hong Kong, which came from Subic in Zambales and was headed for Australia.
The distress call received by the PCG command center from Vienna Wood was at 1:46 a.m. on Sunday, June 28, or more than three hours after the incident. At 5:30 a.m., the first PCG boat was dispatched to do initial search and rescue. Divers were sent to the site in the afternoon, but the search was called off at nightfall. The PCG launched a search by sea and air on Monday that continued for a couple of days.
Fermin Soto, general manager of Irma Fishing and Trading Inc. which owns Liberty 5, said they only learned it was their vessel that was involved in the collision when it failed to report its location at 7 a.m. on Sunday. Another Irma vessel, which left Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi at about the same time as Liberty 5, was dispatched to the scene. When it got there along with the first PCG boat, they saw that the boat had capsized, its hull bobbing in the water with no sign of its occupants. Liberty 5 eventually sank on Sunday afternoon.
All those first critical hours, what did the captain and crew of Vienna Wood do? The vessel said it stayed a safe distance away from the scene, ostensibly so as not to smash into the smaller vessels that had come to rescue the Filipinos. A statement attributed to AM Nomikos, which manages Vienna Wood, said the boat was sailing off the coast of Occidental Mindoro when it “crashed into an object what they had thought to be a fishing boat.’’ The carrier stopped, it said, and conducted a damage assessment on the ship before returning to the site to search for survivors. Vienna Wood remained in the area until the PCG arrived and it was escorted to its anchorage in Batangas Bay.
Was it a hit-and-run? Ursabia said no, as Vienna Wood stayed in the area. But maritime rules mandate that ships and seafarers exhaust all means to save persons in distress at sea—something Vienna Wood failed to do, Ursabia acknowledged. “Based on our investigation, they did not initiate lowering a rescue boat. A factor would be the huge waves. They prioritized the proper navigation of their vessel because other small vessels came to the incident area.”
The Vienna Wood crew may face charges of reckless imprudence or even homicide, noted Ursabia — a move that should be supported and pursued by the government on behalf of the families of the 14 victims. As it is, where are the statements of commiseration from Malacañang or the promise to get to the bottom of things, to reassure distressed relatives that their government is doing all it can to find their loved ones and exact accountability? Not one official was on hand to show empathy when the families staged a vigil at the Irma office in Malabon, where they put up a streamer with photos of the missing 14. Instead, the administration’s response has been to try to dismiss the remotest possible link of the incident to China and denounce critics for supposedly “politicizing’’ the incident.
“Obviously this is a commercial vessel. It has nothing to do with the South China Sea. Whether or not China was there, a fishing boat would have been hit by a commercial vessel, especially one that large,” said Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
“Wala naman pong malaking implikasyon ‘yan. Banggaan lang po ‘yan (It has no major implication. This is just a collision),” declared presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, pointing out that this was an incident to be resolved under Philippine laws.
No argument about that, but the nonchalance is astonishing: Yet another Chinese vessel ramming into a Filipino boat in Philippine waters and not acting quickly to offer rescue, resulting in the tragedy of 14 Filipino fishermen still missing and now presumed dead — and “banggaan lang ‘yan”?
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