No warning issued, survivors claim

Cebu City, Cebu - Five survivors who were invited to the ongoing investigation on the sea collision that killed at least 80 persons in Cebu told investigators that they did not hear any abandon ship warning issued even when MV St. Thomas Aquinas was already listing following its collision with cargo ship, M/V Sulpicio Express Siete.

The Special Board of Marine Inquiry (SMBI), which is looking into the collision involving the two vesels at the Lauis Ledge in Talisay City on August 16, invited the survivors on the second day of the investigation.

They all claimed that they did not hear any announcement to abandon ship and were left in the dark when the ship started listing and eventually sank after it was hit by the cargo vessel. A survivor, Genelyn, whose two-year-old son is still missing, broke into tears when she recounted her ordeal.

She also urged vessel management to keep life jackets under the beds of passengers so that passengers would have easy access to these when similar mishaps happen in the near future.

Meanwhile, two sea marshals who were onboard the M/V Thomas Aquinas gave a different account. They said they both heard the captain issue an order to abandon ship over handheld radio of some security personnel and crewmen of the boat.

The two marshals said it was impossible to make an announcement to abandon ship over the vessel's public address system because the vessel's power conked out seconds after the collision occurred.

Petty Officer 2 Joseph Austria of the Philippine Coast Guard and Richard Pesterios of the Philippine Navy, two of the four sea marshals assigned with the M/V St. Thomas Aquinas, both claimed they heard the vessel's Capt. Reynan Bermejo ordering an abandonment of the ship.

They said, however, that the announcement was only made through handheld radio because the vessel's power was already cut off. The two marshals said they heard three loud banging sounds and then saw the front end of the cargo ship already close to the passenger vessel's rear.

"When I discovered the collision, I immediately went to the life jacket area and started distributing life jackets to the passengers. While helping the passengers, I heard the captain ordering everyone to abandon ship," said Austria..

Pesterios corroborated Austria's statement, adding that he (Pesterios) also heard through the handheld radio of one of the security officers an order to abandon ship even as he was also helping passengers don on life jackets.

The SBMI, headed by Commodore Gilbert Rueras, commander of the Coast Guard's Maritime Safety Services based in Manila, is set to hear the side of the crew members of both vessels even as it also summoned a fourth vessel, fastcraft Oceanjet which was reportedly in the area before the accident happened.

As this developed, Cebu Coast Guard Commander Weniel Azcuna downplayed reports that the search and retrieval operation will be ended today. Forty passengers in the ill-fated M/V Thomas Aquinas remain missing.

"The search and retrieval operation will continue as long as there are still missing passengers," Azcuna said.

Rescue divers failed to retrieve any body from the wreckage of the sunken vessel yesterday, Azcuna said. The death toll stood at 80 with 40 still unaccounted for, he said.

Azcuna assured relatives of those who are still missing that the Coast Guard will continue to search for their loved ones until the rescue team gets a directive to end the task. So far, Azcuna said, the team's instruction is to continue search and retrieval operations.

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