SPECIAL REPORT: 306 fisherfolk still missing; A city in quiet grief

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/12 December) – Typhoon Pablo may have spared residents here from its wrath and fury when it swatted across large areas in eastern Mindanao.

But the pain and anguish are tearing apart families and loved ones of over 300 tuna fishermen still missing a week after the typhoon made a landfall.   Many of the grieving wives and mothers may be resigned to the fact that they will never see their loved ones even again.

What hurts even more, the fate of the missing tuna fishermen has been lost, buried by the stirring and heart-rending images of Pablo’s victims.  They say what you do not see, do not hurt.

There are no bloated bodies of dead fishermen to talk about, only few survivors to tell their harrowing ordeals.

But like relatives of the typhoon victims in Davao and Surigao, they also refused to believe their loved ones are dead.  Others who are willing to accept their fates want to give their dead loved ones a decent burial where they can pay their graves homage.

The disconnect is all over, however.  Nobody seems to care about the missing fishermen, commented a grizzled veteran international journalist who won’t leave this city until Wednesday.

It did not help that the disaster happened on the week leading to the fight of this city’s favorite son, Manny Pacquiao.   It hurt even more that many more preoccupied over the monumental loss of the city’s iconic figure than the fate of the missing tuna fishers.

Not the opportune time

News of the missing tuna fleets did not spread out until it was broken by this writer who happened to be in the company of some of their owners at the Manila meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) held on December 2-6

The typhoon was predicted to make a landfall on a Monday, December 3.

On the morning December 4, a worried Dominic Salazar of THIDCOR told Noel Lorenzo of SLRFI and UFLA executive director Dino Barrientos that they have lost radio communications with one of their catcher vessels.   Salazar however said all three crew members of a support light boat have been found alive after their own vessel sank.

Later in the morning, I met John Yap of Rugela Fishing who said two of his catcher vessels were also missing, including their complement of light and ranger boats.

Jake Lu, president of Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries (SFFAI) said survivors said they saw at least three dead bodies and a capsized catcher vessel.

Ga-tumbling daw,” Lu said (It was tumbling all over).

The manager of RR Fishing said one of their catcher vessels was forced to make a port call after huge waves by the then incoming typhoon created a crack on the welded portion of its hull.  It reached the safety of the port before Pablo raced across the fishing ground and eventually slammed into the coastal areas of Davao Oriental and Surigao del Sur.  They were among the lucky ones whose fleets are all safe.

Salazar requested that the identities of the fishing companies that have lost contact with their fishing boats be withheld pending notification of their kin and while efforts to locate them are still ongoing. I alerted my fellow journalists and media outlets in General Santos City who may be in better position to follow up the lead.  A few called back to ask for more details implying nobody knew what then was happening even though a lot of attention was already given on the magnitude of Pablo’s wrath (international code name Bopha).

The next day, December 5, however, former SFFAI president Marfenio Tan arrived at the WCPFC meeting venue in PICC and told the Philippine delegation that six catcher vessels (unay) are confirmed missing and as many as 300 fishermen may also be lost at sea.

I showed him a forwarded SMS message indicating the last location of one of the catcher vessels before it went into deafening radio silence:  07-53-75, 128-22-38 and 07-50-13, 128-25-54.

The Philippine Navy said the coordinates given were at least 108 nautical miles (198 kilometers east of Baganga Point in Davao Oriental.

Before that, Tan was making frantic calls to the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy where he is a reserve commodore (equivalent to a one-star rank general).

Tan was told the available floating assets of both the coast guard and the navy do not have the capabilities to launch a search and rescue operation in so far away and very wide area without imperiling the lives of their crew.  At the time, the high seas in the area were still dangerous for light vessels.

On December 7, I called PCG eastern Mindanao chief Commodore George Ursabia who said three of their floating assets are still on their way to Davao from Zamboanga while the Philippine Navy has already deployed a ship to begin the search rescue mission.  But he said it won’t be until the following day, December 8, when the Philippine Navy ship will be near where the last sighting of survivors was reported.

He however said three more dead bodies were plucked out of the sea by a passing supply vessel F/B Atlantis of TSP Marine.   A couple of nautical miles ahead, the crew of the passing vessels found 13 survivors.

Perfect storm

It is easy to blame greed for the alleged failure of vessel owners to recall all their fishing fleets in the area.  Or put the blame on the Philippine Coast for allowing them to set sail even with the impending storm warning.

But most of these fishing boats were already out in the open seas weeks before the storm developed into a super typhoon.  Medium-sized purse seines, of which all of those missing were under the category, can stay up to six months in the open seas, regularly receiving fuel and food supplies from carrier ships.

Nobody expected the storm to be the perfect one.

A survivor who declined to be interviewed said waves more than three storeys high slammed on his outrigger handline tuna fishing boat.  He refused to give further details saying the tragedy that claimed some of his companions is still too grim to be retold.

Light boat operator Montgomery Montealegre, whose son Mark Gil is still missing, said their fish carrier loaded with fish left the mother boat (catcher vessel on November 30) along the 09-129 coordinates, some 302 kilometers off Baganga.

The mother boat owned by LPS Fishing was to follow the following day.

Montealegre reached the port of Mati on December 2.  He was expecting his son to dock in the same port for refueling before heading back to General Santos City the following day.

They have not made it and it is already Tuesday (December 11), more than a week after Pablo made a landfall.  He and his wife have been trekking daily to the command center of Task Force Maritime Search set up at the adjacent wing of the General Santos City Police Office in Camp Lira.

Tan said most of the missing boats were caught in the middle of the perfect storm at the unholy hours dawn of December 3 when most radio communications in their base companies were either unmanned or have been turned off.

Tuna handline fishermen Roberto Suarez, 45, of Mangagoy, Surigao del Sur is still very weak inside the intensive care unit (ICU) at the General Santos City Doctors Hospital his doctors refused a request for an interview.

Suarez was the operator of an outrigger boat with a crew of 12 others that included a son, a brother and a brother in law and several nephews.

He lost younger brother Edgardo, according to the brother Gilbert who cannot seem to accept the fate of his missing sibling.

Roberto suffered injuries in his chest and right thigh.  Dr. Mario Dideles said his kidneys shut down in the three days that he laid on a small fishing boat which his son found after the storm subsided.  Luckily, he was able to urinate after four days in the ICU.  But four of his fingers may have to be cut off due to gangrene.

Attending physicians rejected a request to have photos of Roberto taken.

Tan believed many of the fishermen, despite advice to seek shelter, may have underestimated the wrath of Pablo.

306 missing and still counting

Task Force Maritime Search operations chief Cmdr Lued Lincunan said they have officially listed 306 fishermen missing from General Santos City and nearby Sarangani alone from the total 46 fishing vessels also reported as missing.

Lincunan fears the number could rise as several complainants claimed to have relatives on board the missing boats but were not in the official list of crew members supplied by their owners.

In addition, there are also reports of missing tuna handline fishing boats which number SFFAI president could not yet ascertain.

Lincunan also said most of the fishermen rescued by General Santos City-based fishing vessels were from Davao Oriental and Surigao del Sur.

The city social welfare and development office said at least 15 rescued fishermen were already sent back home.

The white board inside the task force operations center has listed 6 already confirmed dead and only 4 rescued fishermen from General Santos City so far.

Lincunan said there have been reports of sightings, one by the tuna handline fishermen who said he saw a mother boat and a light between 3 to 4 pm on December 4 a day after the storm made a landfall.

It buoyed the spirits of relatives who are trooping to the operations center since Day 1 hoping to hear any glimmer of hope from rescuers.

Lincunan said three Philippine Navy vessels are already scouring the areas where the missing vehicles last gave their coordinates.  Two Islander planes from the Philippine Navy are also on reconnaissance mission searching for possible survivors.

“We are still on a search and rescue mission,” Lincunan said with cautious optimism.

Gingging Cabardos (husband Nestor Cabardos), Rubi Quelnat (husband Frederick), Maria Tarranza (brother Gener) were huddled together with Maria Fe Montealegre were waiting for any hint of good news when this writer approached them just outside the operations center.

They are praying all their husbands are still alive somewhere out there. (Edwin G. Espejo/MindaNews contributor)