As of Saturday afternoon, searchers on the air and the sea have yet to find a trace of the six fishermen from Baras and Viga still missing after four of them were found dead and one managed to survive rough seas last week.
An official of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) told the Tribune that last Dec. 2, 2021, the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (MDRRMO of Viga informed that four fishermen from barangay Tinago – Adrian Lanon, Eduardo Walet Sr., Armel Tuonan, and John Paul Tuonan – failed to return from their fishing trip in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
On the same day, the Baras MDRRMO also reported to the EOC that six fishermen from barangays Putsan and Danao – Freddie Mengo, Ronald Abarle, Dante Torrente, Melvin Habagay, Jerson Asis, and Jovel Torrente – were also reported missing by their families.
As early as 5 PM of Dec. 1, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) had already issued a Gale Warning for six regions of the country, including the eastern coast of Catanduanes.
Citing PAGASA weather forecasts. the warning said strong to gale force winds of 55 to 70 kph associated with the northeast monsoon were generating “rough to very rough” seas with wave heights of 3.7 to 5.5 meters.
It advised that fishing boats and other small seacraft should not venture out to sea and alerted larger vessels against big waves.
The Gale Warning apparently proved too late for the fishermen from the two towns, as they were already at sea by the time it was issued.
According to Khalil Tapia of MDRRMO Baras, the fishermen from Putsan and Damao departed from the two fishing villages on board five motorboats at 4 AM of Dec. 1, some 13 hours before the warning was issued, bound for Buoy No. 32 in the Pacific Ocean east of Genitligan.
Freddie Mengo, 42, who was later rescued at barangay Malobago in Rapu-rapu island, Albay, was on the blue-and-red “Franz Gabriel” while Ronald Abarle, 28, was on the blue “Jamalia 3.”
Dante Torrente, 27, of Putsan and Melvin Babagay, 36, of Danao boarded the blue “Franz Gabriel”, with Jerson Asis, 21, of Putsan on the blue “Jamalia 2” and Jovel Torrente, 32, of Danao on a green-and-blue motorized banca.
On the other hand, LDRRMO II Neil Francis Tuibeo of MDRRMO said that the four Tinago fishermen on board the light green “Clifford” motorized banca went east to go fishing on Nov. 30 but failed to return, with the barangay chairman reporting them missing on Dec. 2 at 8 AM.
After food packs were provided to the families of the fishermen, local officials and volunteers initiated a search-and-rescue operation in coordination with the MDRRMO Response Team.
At 4 PM of Dec. 3, a concerned citizen reported that an adult cadaver in a stage of decomposition was found at the shoreline of Soboc, with the body identified by immediate family as that of Eduardo Walet, 55.
The following day, the barangay secretary of Botinagan reported the discovery of a decomposing body at the shoreline, with the cadaver identified through a birthmark as Adrian Lanon, 41.
Last Sunday, Dec. 5, at 7:40 AM, the rotting body of John Paul Tuonan, identified through its clothing, was found at the shore of Soboc, where his dead brother Arnel was also found at 3 PM.
Upon learning of the MDRRMO reports last Dec. 2, Governor Joseph Cua, the Provincial DRRM Office, Mayor Jose Paolo Teves III and the Baras MDRRMO immediately requested the Office of Civil Defence regional office to conduct aerial surveillance of the area where the fishermen went.
On Dec. 3, five rescuers from the Baras MDRRMO, four personnel from the Philippine Coast Guard in Catanduanes, and eight local fishermen board four motorized bancas left Putsan and Danao in a search and rescue operation for the five missing fishermen.
They traveled about five nautical miles southeast but encountered a series of waves almost four meters high, which could potentially damage the frail vessels.
The bad weather and rough seas prompted the group to postpone the operation and head back to shore for their safety, planning to resume the search as soon as the weather became bearable enough to allow them to venture out to open sea.
After several follow-ups, the requested aerial asset from OCD-5 arrived at 10:42 AM of Dec. 4, with the team attending a briefing on the proposed SAR flight pattern with Gov. Cua and PDRRMO officials at the Virac airport.
At 11:35 AM that day, the Cessna 208 Caravan piloted by PCG naval aviator Capt. Philip Soria took off from the airport and headed towards the search.
After an hour and 15 minutes, the plane landed at Bicol International Airport in Albay, with Capt. Soria informing through a text message that the search yielded negative results.
Soria added that they did not see any debris from the capsized boats during their flight above the search area.
In a phone interview with the Tribune, the survivor from Baras, Freddie Mengo, said that he and the five other fishermen traveled for six hours aboard the five motorized bancas towards the buoy where they planned to spend the night of Dec. 1 before returning to Putsan and Danao in the morning.
But at 10 PM, the wind and the waves began to get stronger, with Mengo and other companions on two other boats deciding to head back slowly to shore.
They left the other fishermen on two other boats, which did not have flashing lights, at the buoy.
On their way back however, Mengo recalled, he had to repeatedly reattach part of the engine that kept getting loose and lost sight of the other two motorized bancas.
When he finally took care of the problem, he no longer saw the lights of the two other boats.
He told the Tribune that he subsisted on bread that he brought as his banca, its engine still running, was carried by the wind and the sea far from Catanduanes and towards the mainland.
At about 10 AM the following morning, Dec. 2, he found himself near Malobago, Rapu-rapu where someone gave him some food, coffee and dry clothes.
The next day, he decided to travel back to Catanduanes using the same banca and did not see any trace of his companions or their vessels along the way.
The ongoing ordeal of the missing fishermen from Tinago and Viga was not the only untoward incident linked to last week’s inclement weather.
On Dec. 2, three residents of Palumbanes Island, Toytoy, Caramoran were on board a motorized banca bound for Catanduanes after buying goods in Tabaco City when the banca sank that afternoon.
According to MDRRMO Caramoran, Juanito Interno Sr., 48, Ranie Sales, 26, and Joel Vergara Jr., 24, were rescued in the sea off Batan island in Rapu-rapu while clinging to styropor boxes and their sunken banca.
They were brought to the Tabaco City PCG station before returning to the island.