By Tara Yap and Aaron Recuenco
The death toll from three separate sea mishaps along the Iloilo Strait on Saturday has climbed to 26 with nine others missing at the height of the heavy rains and winds unleashed by tropical depression “Hanna” in Western Visayas.
“We recovered 11 bodies today,” said Donna Magno, chief of the Iloilo City Risk Reduction and Management Office and official incident spokesperson.
Passenger boat M/B Jenny Vince washed ashore Sunday morning in Dumangas town, Iloilo province. Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel had to break open the hull of the boat to retrieve the bodies of the 10 people who were trapped inside. The body of a boy also washed ashore in the same town.
“There’s also another report of an unclaimed body in one hospital here,” Magno told the Manila Bulletin.
Jose Roberto Nuñez, Western Visayas regional director of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD), has requested the Philippine Navy for a boat that will help in the search for the nine missing persons.
In total, 53 survived from the 87 passengers and crew members of the three different passenger boats that capsized Saturday.
Brig. Gen. Rene Pamuspusan, director of the Western Visayas regional police, said massive search and rescue operations are still ongoing while all the survivors are being monitored in various hospitals where they were taken after they were rescued.
The first tragedy occurred at noon on Saturday when strong winds and waves hit passenger vessels M/B Chichi and M/B Kezia which were both traversing the Guimaras Strait.
“Based on the report we received, the two passenger vessels capsized as a result of the strong winds and waves that struck them. This caused the passengers and crew to drift in the seawaters,” said Pamuspusan.
“We immediately deployed our personnel in the area with the help of the Philippine Coast Guard. Most of the passengers and crew were rescued,” he added.
From M/B Kezia, all the four crew were rescued. The vessel was not carrying passengers then.
A total of 12 passengers of M/B Chichi drowned while 35 other passengers and four crewmen were rescued.
At around 3 p.m., another passenger boat plying the Iloilo-Gumiaras sea route, the M/B Jenny Vince, also capsized due to bad weather.
Pamuspusan said M/B Jenny Vince had 44 crew and passengers on board and 13 of them, including a minor, drowned when the vessel capsized.
Six people from M/B Jenny Vince were missing.
It was not immediately clear why authorities allowed the two passenger vessels to sail despite the weather disturbance—and why it allowed M/B Jenny Vince to sail despite the tragedy that struck the two other vessels.
After the third boat capsized, PCG officials have been mum as to who gave the go signal that allowed Jenny Vince to depart the wharf in Buenavista. It took both Mayors Jerry Treñas of Iloilo City and Eugene Reyes of Buenavista town, Guimaras to order the total suspension of sea trips along the body of water.
The PCG also suspended trips of smaller passenger boats. Passengers stranded in both Iloilo and and Guimaras were given the option to ride the roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) ships, which are bigger and more stable.
Of the 26 fatalities, 13 were already identified while relatives and friends of the others are awaiting their proper identification.
Police Maj. Joem Malong, spokesperson of the Western Visayas regional police, said that forensic experts from the police regional office were sent to the areas where the recovered bodies were taken.
Passengers are required to wear life jackets, especially on cloudy or rainy weather. A boy who was discovered ashore was still wearing his life jacket.
“Our search, rescue and retrieval operation is ongoing,” City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CDRRMO) head Donna Magno said, adding that dead bodies were seen floating in Dumangas on Sunday morning.
Magno said the search and retrieval operation is “crucial” because even if they are dead, it important for their families to see their bodies.
“Given the number of hours since the incident happened and until this hour, we are still hoping that we can still see their bodies,” she said.
She also hoped that their bodies drifted to nearby places and they just failed to send information or they are just waiting to be verified.
Magno said 17 survivors already went home on Saturday night while the rest are still at the evacuation center.
She shared a heart-wrenching story about a husband who attempted to rescue his wife only to find out he was holding a different woman.
“And when he attempted the third time to grab his wife, she already slipped and he could not reach her anymore,” she added.
Meantime, the transfer of retrieved bodies from Dumangas to Iloilo City is now being facilitated while coordination with the Department of Health is being made for the cadaver bags.
An information desk was also set up to assist families who are still looking for their family members and for identification of dead bodies.
Meanwhile, Civil Defense Regional Director Jose Roberto Nuñez said as early as 5 a.m., teams conducting search and retrieval operations have been dispatched despite bad weather conditions.
“We cannot give a timeline because the weather is not good but we are trying our best to have an aerial survey if weather allows,” he said.
He said investigation is now underway as to why the motor boats were allowed to sail despite the bad weather.
“We have no basis for the final but at least we can have an initial investigation so that we can see if there are problems,” he added.
He assured that those found liable will be held accountable for the sea tragedy. (With reports from PNA)