Pacquiao’s city weeps – but not over him

Edwin Espejo
General Santos City weeps quietly for its 310 missing fishermen

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Typhoon “Pablo” may have spared this city, but the long wait is tearing apart the families and loved ones of the more than 310 tuna fishermen who are still missing.

The fortunate ones who survived the rough seas on that fateful day had chosen to remain silent, unable to muster the courage to talk about what happened.

It doesn’t help that the disaster occurred on December 3, the week leading to the fight of this city’s favorite son, Manny Pacquiao, in Las Vegas. To the families of the victims, it hurts that many seemed more preoccupied with the monumental loss of the city’s iconic figure last Sunday, December 9, than the fate of the missing tuna fishers.

News of the missing tuna fleet did not spread until we wrote about it Thursday last week, citing information we gathered from some of the vessels’ owners who were in Manila for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) meeting held on December 2-6.

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

But most of these fishing boats were already out in the sea weeks before the storm developed into a super typhoon. Medium-sized purse seines can stay up to 6 months in open sea, regularly receiving fuel and food supplies from carrier ships.

Marfenio Tan, former president of the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries (SFFAI), said most of the missing boats were caught in the middle of a perfect storm at the unholy dawn hours of Monday, December 3, when most radio communication units in base companies were either unmanned or had been turned off.

The typhoon was predicted to make a landfall on December 3. On the morning of December 4, a worried Dominic Salazar, a ship owner, told colleagues they had lost contact with one of their catcher vessels. Salazar however said all 3 crew members of a support light boat had been found alive after their own vessel sank.
A survivor recalls the ordeal. Photo courtesy of Edwin Espejo.

Bad news

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 SFFAI, quoted survivors as saying that they saw at least 3 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 “Pablo” triggered giant waves before slamming into the coastal villages of Davao Oriental and Surigao del Sur.

The next day, December 5, former SFFAI president Tan arrived at the WCPFC meeting in Manila and told the Philippine delegation that 6 catcher vessels could no longer be traced and that as many as 300 fishermen were missing.

Before that, Tan made frantic calls to the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy. He was told that the available floating assets of both the coast guard and the Navy lacked the capability to a launch a search and rescue operation without endangering their own crew. At that time, the seas were still dangerous for light vessels.

On December 7, I called PCG eastern Mindanao chief Commodore George Ursabia who said 3 of their floating assets were just on their way to Davao from Zamboanga, while the Philippine Navy had already deployed a ship to begin the search and rescue mission. But the Navy ship was to reach the area on December 8 yet.

A survivor said waves of more than 3 stories high slammed into 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, some 302 kilometers off Baganga town in Davao Oriental. 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 at 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.

He and his wife have been going daily to the command center of Task Force Maritime Search at the adjacent wing of the General Santos City Police Office in Camp Lira.

Task Force Maritime Search operations chief Commander 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. (The national government put the missing fishermen at 310.)

Lincunan fears the number could rise because several complainants are claiming to have relatives on board these vessels whose names are not on the official list submitted by vessel owners to authorities.

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