GenSan's missing fishermen, a year after Pablo

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Exactly a year ago on Wednesday, December 4, some 377 fishermen from General Santos City were caught in the middle of a perfect storm.

Nobody knew what their fate were until well into the late afternoon of the following day, December 5, 2012, when a worried Dominic Salazar said only 3 crew members of a light boat owned by their company, Thidcor Fishing, have been found alive from a fishing fleet that consisted of one catcher vessel, a light boat and a ranger boat.

They were the fortunate to have survived the 30-feet waves that battered their boats for more than 12 hours. Their 24 other companions did not. They were never found.

So were the remains of 328 others.

Of the 377 fishermen who were officially accounted for, only 17 survived and only 8 of the missing were found. The rest were long ago presumed already dead, when the government rescuers gave up the vain search for their bodies two weeks after Super Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) hit Mindanao.

Such was the wrath of Pablo that it brought death and devastation both inland and in the high seas.

On December 3, 2012, Pablo approached and battered eastern Mindanao like no other typhoon in its recorded history. It hit landfall just after midnight.

Pablo left on its wake more than 1,043 dead, most of them in the provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Province. The figure includes the fishermen for General Santos City and Sarangani.

Quiet remembrance

REMEMBERING THE FISHERMEN. Relatives of the fishermen who went missing attend a commemoration in General Santos City, 4 December 2013. Photo by Edwin Espejo

REMEMBERING THE FISHERMEN. Relatives of the fishermen who went missing attend a commemoration in General Santos City, 4 December 2013.

Photo by Edwin Espejo

General Santos City Mayor Ronnel Rivera said the story of the brave fishermen who lost their lives in the storm is not lost in memory. Without them and the more than 25,000 directly employed in the fishing industry, this city would not have earned its moniker as the Tuna Capital of the Philippines.

But a year into their tragic agony and death, no one seems to remember them anymore.

Even the promised marker to honor their memory has been lost in the conversation among city officials.

The city council, many of members not yet elected when the tragedy happened, does not seem to care despite expressing interests in honoring the dead and missing fishermen as soon as they were elected into office in May.

The previous city council was even worse. When then city councilor Rivera introduced a resolution to erect a monument in honor of the dead, he was immediately met with skepticism from the then majority block identified with former city mayor Darlene Antonino Custodio.

Custodio herself promised to seriously consider the proposal. It apparently got lost along the way as nothing ever came out from city hall.

Neither has the Socsksargen Association of Fishing and Allied Industry seriously pursued its commitment to set aside funds for the construction of such memorial.

Fishing boat owners have seemed to move on, having settled most of their promised obligations to the families of the victims of Pablo – some for a mere P50,000 cash assistance.

Still mourning

Photo by Edwin Espejo

Maybe the more devastating Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) already buried the memory of Pablo.

But for the wives and children, mothers and fathers who were left behind, the memory and the wounds are as fresh as they were a year ago.

Angelina Nemeño, whose husband Cornelio as among those whose body was never found, said coming to terms for her and children’s loss is a reality they have already embraced. But the pitiful assistance they got from the owner of the fishing boat is still too painful to ignore.

Cornelio, then 51, was the piyado – boat skipper – of F/B Queen Mary owned by Thidcor Fishing.

All she got from the company was P70,000 despite the 26 years of service her husband had rendered for the company. She also received P20,000 burial assistance and another P14,000 as death benefits from the Social Security System (SSS). Angelina says she will begin receiving pension from the SSS in January 2014 – for P1,000 a month.

Like Angelina, Alma Andaya also received P50,000 in cash assistance from RA Fishing Industry for her husband Rolan Dampog who likewise was declared missing.

All families of the victims – dead and the few who survived – also got P10,000 each from the local government and grocery items.

But after that, they were left to fend for their own as the fishing companies were insistent that sans the employer-employee relationship, they are not required to give beyond that assistance they have agreed to offer – P50,000.

Photo by Edwin Espejo

Sadly, not one of those interviewed said their husbands and sons left some insurance policies for such eventuality.

Sr. Susan Bolaño who is helping organize the families of the victims to secure justice said they have been preparing legal actions against the fishing companies where the missing fishermen worked prior their presumed deaths. But for some, they have given up hope and chose to suffer in silence.

They chose December 4 as the day to remember their departed – the tomb markers and epitaphs etched in the blue waters.

In a heart-rending commemoration of the tragic fate of their loved ones, they offered flowers to the sea – hoping the memory of their dead will not be lost in the city made famous by its brave fishermen. – Rappler.com