OCCIDENTAL MINDORO, Philippines – When a Chinese vessel rammed and sank their ship on June 9 near Recto Bank, the Filipino crew and their captain saw hope from afar.
“Meron pong natanaw na ilaw mga limang milya po ang layo (We spotted light 5 miles away),” said Junel Insigne, the captain of Fishing Boat Gem-Ver. He was telling reporters on Friday, June 14, aboard BRP Alcaraz the story of their traumatic night at sea.
At that point, the 22 men were holding on to their sinking boat to save themselves. The Chinese fishing vessel left a hole in the boat’s rear, causing it to slowly sink from the back. Only a portion of the front remained above water, Insigne said. (READ: Chinese vessel sinks Philippine boat in West PH Sea 'collision')
“Pinagsagwan ko sa tao ko (I asked my people to row towards it),” said Insigne, referring to two of his men who used a small boat to row towards the light they saw.
The two men, Justine Pascual and JP Gordiones, were able to float by clinging to one of their small fishing boats.
There was no assurance that the light was coming from a friendly country's vessel. It was also possible for it to move away while they were still rowing. Still, they rowed on.
“Hindi na namin iniisip 'yung pagod, takot, gutom, parang wala na ang gutom namin kahit na malayo. Para sa pag-asa lang namin na mabuhay,” Gordiones narrated to Rappler in an interview.
(We weren’t thinking about the exhaustion, the fear. Our hunger dissipated even if it was far. It was for our chance to live.)
Pascual, while rowing, still couldn’t believe what had happened to them, saying: “Parang hindi nga ako makapaniwala na nangyari 'yun habang nangingisda ako. Iniisip ko bakit nangyari 'yun at maliwanag naman ang ilaw namin.”
(I couldn’t believe that it happened while I was fishing. I was wondering why it happened when our lights were bright.)
Friends at sea
After two hours, the two Filipino crew members reached the boat. Based on its appearance, they were able to determine that it was from Vietnam. They rowed to the rear then according to Pascual, he yelled “Help me!” His call awoke a Vietnamese fisherman, who then called for his mates.
They weren’t immediately allowed to board. According to the two, they were given flashlights to identify themselves. After showing that they were in small Filipino fishing boats which were already starting to gather water inside, the Vietnamese allowed them to board their vessel.
“Nagpalawit ng nylon at hinatak kami nila. Pinasakay na kami (They dropped us a nylon cord and they pulled us up. They allowed us to board),” said Gordiones.
After they got on board, Pascual said, “Vietnam? Philippines? Friends,” while connecting his index fingers. They recalled the Vietnamese saying, “Okay.” (READ: Vietnam to Philippines: United, we will win)
They then kept on saying help while pointing to the direction they came from. In a matter of minutes, they were back in the wreckage of F/B Gem-Ver.
The Vietnamese also pulled the rest of the Filipino crew on board, then fed them afterwards with chicken, noodles, and biscuits.
Thanks to the Vietnamese crew, Insigne was able to radio the information to the Philippines.
FB Gem-Ver was kept afloat and towed by its sister vessel FB Gem-Ver 2, while the Filipino crew were transferred to the Navy’s BRP Alcaraz where they stayed until the afternoon of June 14 before finally going home to San Jose.
The Filipino fishermen's boat was rammed near Recto Bank, an underwater reef formation that is said to contain huge reserves of oil and natural gas in the West Philippine Sea. While coveted by China, Recto Bank belongs to the Philippines. (READ: Recto Bank: Why China covets what belongs to the Philippines). – Rappler.com
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Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.