By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
AROROY, MASBATE– Our convoy of white—a van, a crew cab and a truck—arrived at the port of Pioduran, Albay minutes past 3 a.m. We came just in the nick of time. The first Roll On-Roll Off (RoRo) trip to Masbate island was scheduled to leave at 3.
We walked to the ticketing counter to ask if we could still catch up rather than wait for the next trip at 5. The lady there quickly shouted to the truck already backing up the narrow dock to stop.
As we paid the dues to the transport company, the ports authority, and the Coast Guard, a security guard at the pier approached. He showed us a video on the screen of his China-made cell phone.
“I took it around a month ago,” he said in Tagalog. He hadn’t offered it to anyone yet, not even to the news crew of another TV network that first boarded our ship.
The video was crude and pixilated, but it was gold as file video. It was footage of the M/V Lady of Carmel leaving Pioduran Port–-the reason we were travelling that way too.
The ship had sunk the day before on its way to Aroroy, Masbate. More than 50 passengers were rescued, two were found dead, and seven are still missing. The cause of the mishap is still unknown, and the ship hasn’t been found.
The guard sent the video to my phone via Bluetooth. To whom should we credit it to? “No need to use my name,” he said.
The M/V Carmel was smaller than its sister ship, the M/V Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Both were passenger vessels of Medallion Transport, which operated two trips from Pioduran to Masbate. Now it was only one.
Only the M/V Carmel travelled to and from Aroroy Port, our expected base of operations. Our ship, the M/V Miraculous Medal stops at Masbate City, an hour and a half from Aroroy.
The M/V Miraculous Medal has three decks. Vehicles occupy the lowest, which can contain a mix of seven to eight cars, trucks, and buses. The second deck houses sleeping and lounging areas. The bridge, or the captain’s control, is on the top deck.
In contrast, the M/V Carmel only had two. The main deck held both the passenger area and a parking spot for a truck and two buses. Already above it was the bridge, and the remaining space for passengers.
A sunrise without the sun’s disc broke the cloudy night in streaks of orange and purple, an hour since we left Albay. We still glimpsed the province’s coastline, punctuated by the triangular silhouette of the Mayon Volcano. A cloud of smoke emanated from its still-perfect cone.
The sea was calm and the trip smooth. Most of the ship’s 85 passengers were asleep. Three female attendants at the ship’s store prepared instant coffee or cup noodles for the few who were awake and buying.
Some beds and many seats were empty. After all, the ship’s capacity was nearly 400. An attendant said we were already past their last peak season during the end of summer vacation.
Among the commuters up early was Tita Iyao, a middle-aged woman in jeans and a blue polo who sat at a plastic bench overlooking the sea, smoking a cigarette. Tita was traveling with her husband, two of their daughters, and their eldest daughter’s husband. All were still asleep.
They had come back from Manila, where Tita’s youngest spent three weeks in the orthopedic hospital. A 20-year-old education graduate, she was preparing to teach pre-school at a Masbate public school when the car she was in with her sister and her sister’s husband crashed into a ravine.
They got out of the car and found help, but the multi-cab was never recovered. The teacher was hurt the worst. She had broken bones and flesh torn off the sole of her right foot.
“She had a difficult time travelling by bus,” Tita recounted, pointing to her daughter’s bandaged leg. “She lay in two seats and had to move back her feet whenever someone passed the aisle. It was painful.”
Tita rode the M/V Carmel on her last trip to Manila. With the news of the ferry sinking, she said it became frightening to travel by water. She admittedly did not even know how to use a lifejacket.
“But you’ll end up riding here anyway since it’s cheaper,” she said.
Tita’s injured daughter pleaded with her eldest sister if she could ride a plane going back to Masbate. But they could not afford it.
On the top deck, the ship’s 20 rubber lifeboats are laid out on both ends outside the captain’s bridge. Each can hold 25 persons.
That and the ship’s over-400 life jackets can accommodate people beyond the ship’s capacity, said Capt. Jose Malbas, who talked to us about his crew’s standard response to emergencies like sinking.
First, he said, the ship would make a distress call on a radio frequency monitored by the Coast Guard and nearby ships. The captain would then inform the passengers the situation via PA, at which crew members would calmly guide them to life jackets and life boats.
How long should it take from mayday call to exit? “Only minutes,” Captain Malbas said.
The SOPs bear review after survivors of the M/V Carmel said the ship’s crew saved themselves first when the ship went down. Passengers were hurt in the chaos and life jackets were not distributed.
Captain Malbas pointed to a far-off point we had already passed in the sea—the area where the M/V Carmel sank.
“We and other ships were also sent to scour it for survivors,” he said. They had only heard static from the distress call of the M/V Carmel, but the Coast Guard got it clear.
The captain unrolled a well-worn map to show how deep the RoRo had sunk off Burias Island–121 fathoms or more than 700 feet. Authorities, however, estimate the depth to a thousand feet.
As smoothly as the M/V Miraculous Medal left Pioduran, it arrived at the Masbate City port over four hours later. A common end for the hundreds other RoRo vessels crisscrossing the archipelago daily.
The commuters walked to the sole bus waiting below. Tita Iyao’s family hired help to carry down her wounded daughter there on a mono-block chair.
Captain Malbas and his crew stayed behind to rest. Their next voyage was later that noon.
And our news team drove the final lap of a trip that just began our Masbate assignment.