Disaster officials: Sea tragedy a “lesson” for local fishermen

SEA TRAGEDY SURVIVORS. Putsan, Baras fisherman Freddie Mengo, 42, (left), found himself at Malobago, Rapu-Rapu, Albay on Dec. 2, 2021, a day after he and five other fishermen met bad weather. John Paul Vargas, 25, (in orange shirt), and Kemuel Vargas, 16, (in blue sando) swam ashore in Tinopan, Rapu-Rapu on Dec. 9, two days after the banca they and John Paul’s father, Fernando, were riding capsized off Nagngangang Buaya Point. MDRRMO Baras/Virac

So far, six fishermen from Catanduanes have been confirmed to have died, with five still missing and believed dead, in the sea tragedy that disaster officials hope would serve to be a hard lesson for local fishermen.

Last Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021 at 11:45 AM, two of the three Virac fishermen who went missing on Dec, 7 finally came home two days after they managed to swim ashore in barangay Tinopan, Rapu-Rapu, Albay.

Fernando Vargas, 48, John Paul Vargas, 25, and Kemuel Borja, 16, set out to sea sometime after 3 AM of Dec. 7 despite a gale warning issued by PAGASA ten hours earlier that advised small sea craft not to venture out to sea.

Borja’s mother, Josephine, 42, told the Tribune that they did not expect that her youngest son Kemuel would join Fernando and his son for the fishing trip.

She said that the trio usually retrieved crab traps laid at the bottom of Cabugao Bay just a distance away from the shore.

According to accounts told to family members, the fishermen were on their way back to barangay San Vicente when they encountered strong waves near Nagngangang Buaya point in Bato town.

Fernando decided to jettison the fishing net, still tied to the boat with a rope, in an effort to stabilize the motorized banca in the rough sea.

But things turned worse when the net seemed to be dragging the banca downward until a huge wave overturned the boat.

The three fishermen managed to hold on to the stern or rear end of the overturned wooden hull and it was in this situation that they reportedly stayed for two nights and one day.

At about 3 AM of Dec. 9, they heard the roar of the crashing surf on a reef and saw lights on the distant shore.

A big wave broke Kemuel’s hold and he vanished beneath the sea. He told his mother later that he was rolled by succeeding waves three times underwater and thought he would not survive.

Fernando wanted to look for the boy, but his son told him to go ahead and swim for the shore as he (John Paul) would try to find Kemuel.

With his father soon disappearing from view, John Paul swam around trying to locate the boy but could not find him.

He decided to swim to the shore and at about 4 AM he was seen by residents walking on the beach and calling out for help.

Volunteers combed the shore and reef for any sign of the two missing fishermen until Kemuel was found at 7AM, bruised but alive, with Fernando remaining missing.

The two survivors were looked after by Tinopan barangay captain Hazel Guianan, with assistance provided by Mayor Ronald Galicia through MDRRMO Ayra Bataller.

They were supposed to be brought to Legazpi City and then to Tabaco port but heavy seas on the route prevented this.

In the morning of Dec. 11, Chairman Guianan and the MDRRMO permitted the former’s husband, Ronilo II, and companions Jeome Springael and Marvin Banzuela to bring John Paul and Kemuel back to Catanduanes on board a motorized banca.

During the three-hour journey through moderate seas punctuated by intermittent winds and heavy rains, they received a message from the barangay chairman that a body had been sighted floating off Tinopan.

At Ibong Sapa where the banca landed, the survivors took a quick bath and had lunch with the Borjas and the Rapu-Rapu crew before Vargas, Borja and the latter proceeded to the barangay hall for a debriefing with MDRRMO personnel led by Eligio Matira and Chairman Felipe Romero as well as Coast Guard personnel.

Before the briefing, Chairman Romero expressed his disappointment with the Coast Guard, which allegedly ignored the barangay councils call for assistance in locating the three missing fishermen.

But he was later mollified by the PCG’s explanation that it concentrated its efforts on the search and rescue of the six fishermen earlier reported lost off Baras town.

The village chief agreed with MDRRMO assistant Matira that the incident should serve as a lesson not only to the fishermen in San Vicente and Ibong Sapa, but also in fishing villages in Virac to heed the gale warnings issued by PAGASA.

Although the three fishermen chose to ignore the warning on Dec. 7 and still went out to sea, none of the other 80 fishermen in the two barangays have gone out to sea since then, Romero stated.

A cellphone photo of the cadaver recovered off Tinopan was shown to Vargas to see if he could identify it as that of his father but he said Fernando had a gray shirt while the recovered body was wearing a black or dark-colored shirt.

Danilo Tabuzo, a relative of Fernando, conceded that, pending confirmation of the identity of the dead body, the MDRRMO Rapu-Rapu could proceed with the burial of the cadaver as it is already in an advanced state of decomposition.

There is speculation that the body could be that of one of the four fishermen from Baras who are still missing, as it was in the same condition as that of Melvin Babagay, 36, of Danao.

Last Dec. 11, his decomposing body, with most of the flesh gone from the head, was found off the shoreline of Matabao island in Batuan town, Ticao Island, Masbate.

The cadaver was confirmed as that of Babagay based on the name “Melvin” tattooed on the right shoulder of the body, a photo of which was shown to his wife.

Matabao island is about 45 kilometers southwest of Capul Island in Northern Samar where two of the five motorized bancas from Baras, the “Jamalia 3” and “France Gabriel,” were found floating but submerged in the sea just off Capul’s lighthouse on Dec. 5 by PCG Northern Samar.

Babagay and Dante Torrente, 27, of Putsan, were on board the “France Gabriel” while Ronald Abarle, 28, was on “Jamaila 3.”

Aside from Dante Torrente and Abarle, also missing are Jarson Asis, 21, of Putsan who was on “Jamalia 2,” and Jovel Torrente, 32, of Danao, on board an unmarked banca.

Only Freddie Mengo, 42, survived the rough seas brought by the northeast monsoon. On the night of Dec. 1, he decided to have the still running banca be carried away by the current and the prevailing wind towards Rapu-Rapu where he eventually ended up at the shore of barangay Malobago.

The four other fatalities – Adrian Lanon, Eduardo Walet Sr., Arnel Tuonan and John Paul Tuonan – had left the shore of Tinago, Viga on Nov. 30 but failed to return from their fishing trip.

Their bodies were found one after the other beginning on Dec. 3 on the shoreline of Soboc and Botinagan.

No sign of the other fishermen have been found despite an aerial search by a PCG plane while several search, rescue and recovery operations were aborted due to heavy seas reaching up to four meters high.

Last Dec. 7, despite the daily Gale Warnings relayed by the PCG, the Baras police station and MDRRMO Baras asking fishermen to avoid going out due to dangerous sea conditions, fishermen from Putsan and Danao ignored the warnings.

Six of the motorized bancas that ventured out that morning were damaged, with four of them left by fishermen in the open sea: the “Boy Kinago/Salbatana,” the “Jade Ann,” the “Janelle/Ganda,” and an unmarked blue banca.

The “Boy Kinago” which was boarded by Arjay Timbal and Joel Dayawon, sank at 9 AM of Dec. 7 about 13 kilometers off shore, with the two men rescued by other motorized bancas on their way home.

It was later recovered in barangay Balud del Sur, Gubat, Sorsogon on Dec. 10 while the “Janelle/Ganda” of Nestor Carranza Jr. was found off Rizal, Gubat also on the same day.

While nobody died or went missing during that incident, the Baras local government unit headed by Mayor Jose Paolo Teves III appealed to the town’s fishermen to abide by the warnings on inclement weather.

Last Dec. 3, the mayor, through MDRRMO Baras, sent food packs and P5,000 cash assistance to the families of the missing fishermen, with food packs also distributed to families of fishermen whose livelihood has been disrupted by the bad weather.

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