Rescuers from the Philippine Coast Guard on Monday were searching for 14 people who went missing after a local fishing boat collided with a Hong Kong-flagged cargo vessel and sank off the coast of Mamburao town in Occidental Mindoro province early Sunday.
Commodore Armand Balilo, spokesperson for the Coast Guard, said the 45-meter local fishing vessel Liberty 5 was headed for Navotas, Metro Manila, from Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi when it collided with the cargo vessel Vienna Wood around 1 a.m. on Sunday off Barangay Tayamaan in Mamburao.
Balilo said initial investigation showed the collision occurred due to “rough seas.”
The Vienna Wood, a bulk carrier registered in Hong Kong that carried a crew of 20, came from Subic, Zambales province, and was on its way to Australia when the collision occurred.
The captain of the Vienna Wood, which was not carrying cargo at the time, sent a distress call “a few hours later,” Balilo said.
He said the Coast Guard escorted the cargo vessel to its anchorage bay in Batangas province.
The Coast Guard deployed aircraft and ships in the search for the missing people, who included 12 fishermen and two passengers. It also issued a notice to all vessels in the area to be on the lookout and report any sighting of the people from the fishing boat.
Strong sea currents interrupted the search on Sunday evening, but operations resumed early Monday.
The Philippines has a poor shipping safety record, with scores dying in accidents at sea each year, usually aboard wooden-hulled outriggers that move people from one small island to another.
There have also been incidents allegedly linked with maritime disputes.
In June last year, a Chinese fishing trawler hit a Filipino fishing boat that was anchored near Reed Bank in the West Philippine Sea, waters within Manila’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea that Beijing insists are part of its territory.
The Philippine fishing vessel Gem-Ver 1 sank, but the Chinese trawler went on its way, abandoning 22 Filipino fishermen in the open sea.
A Vietnamese fishing boat rescued the Filipino fishermen and turned them over to Philippine authorities.
The incident raised hackles in Manila, but President Duterte played it down as a “little accident.” He, however, accepted offer of a joint investigation by the Chinese.
The owners of Gem-Ver 1 and the fishermen received new boats and cash from some Chinese businessmen and private donors, but Elizer Salilig, regional director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said nothing more had been heard about the owner of the Chinese trawler.
On Monday, Irma Fishing and Trading Inc., which owns the Liberty 5, filed a maritime protest to set off a marine casualty investigation by Philippine authorities.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the collision would be resolved under Philippine laws, as a group of fishermen blamed the Duterte administration’s diplomatic dance with China for the Hong Kong vessel’s abandonment of the Filipino boat’s crew and passengers at sea.
“This is an issue of Philippine Admiralty Law because the collision occurred in Philippine territorial waters. There is no international law application here other than foreign flagships can sail through under the concept of innocent passage,” Roque told a press briefing.
The rules to be applied in the investigation are similar to the rules applied to the probe of a vehicular accident on land, he said.
“It has no major implication. That is just a collision,” he said.
It was “crystal clear hit-and-run,” the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) said in a statement.
“The Chinese personnel of the ship could have rescued the fishing crew when the fishing vessel capsized, but they didn’t,” Pamalakaya national chair Fernando Hicap said in the statement.
Hicap compared Sunday’s collision with the Gem-Ver 1 sinking on June 9 last year, saying [i]t’s the same tragic incident perpetrated by a Chinese vessel that continues to operate and disrespect our [fishermen] in our very own territorial waters.”
“The Duterte government’s continuing inaction against Chinese violation of our fishing rights encourages foreign vessels entering our waters to belittle the safety and welfare of Filipino [fishermen],” Hicap said.
He noted that the Gem-Ver incident also happened in the same month and remained unresolved.
“One year of no justice and yet another tragic accident happened,” Hicap said.
Call for accountability
“We don’t want injustice to happen to our [fishermen] again. The owner and the captain of the Chinese vessel must be held accountable,” he added.
The captain of the Liberty 5 was identified as Jose Magnes Alfonso. The vessel’s crew and passengers, reportedly employees of Irma Fishing and Trading, remained unidentified as of Monday afternoon.
The Liberty 5 left Kinapusan Island, Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi, around 5:45 a.m. on Friday carrying 4,000 tons of fish. It was expected to arrive at the fish port in Navotas at 10 a.m. on Sunday.
Fermin Soto, general manager of Irma Fishing and Trading, on Monday said the vessel was supposed to report its location at 7 a.m. on Sunday, but it did not.
“That’s how we learned it was our vessel that was involved in the collision,” he said.
Soto said another vessel of his company, the Wacky, which left Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi at about the same time as the Liberty 5, went to the stricken the boat’s rescue but when it and Coast Guard responders arrived at the collision site at daybreak, they found the fishing boat capsized, its hull bobbing in the water and its crew gone.
The vessel, along with tubs of fish, eventually sank on Sunday afternoon.
Coast Guard rescuers and local responders stretched the search for the missing up to 18 kilometers off the western coast of Occidental Mindoro, where they found some floating debris.
‘Large hole’ on left side
Soto said Coast Guard divers who saw the Liberty 5 before it sank noticed a “large hole” on the left side of the vessel.
The Coast Guard said initial investigation showed “the front” of the Vienna Wood was damaged.
Communities and hospitals in the towns of Paluan, Mamburao and Lubang were alerted to the accident.
“The entire [Coast Guard] district is praying for survivors. We are hoping they have clung to something and found their way to shore,” said Commodore Leovigildo Panopio, Coast Guard commander for Southern Tagalog.
But strong sea current and “unfavorable weather” were slowing the search and reducing the chances of finding survivors, he added.
—With reports from Jhesset O. Enano, Karl R. Ocampo, Leila B. Salaverria and AFP
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