By Joey A. Gabieta and Rolando O. Borrinaga
PDI Visayas Bureau

(Published as front page item in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 13, 2002.)

NAVAL, Biliran – Even though the ferry carried three times its 30-passenger capacity, the Coast Guard still allowed the vessel to sail, an angry Gov. Rogelio Espina charged yesterday. The result: 19 dead and 70 hospitalized.

The Biliran sea tragedy on May 11, 2002 happened on the spot where sea meets land at the left edge of this photograph.
The Biliran sea tragedy on May 11, 2002 happened on the spot where sea meets land at the left edge of this photograph.

But the Coast Guard, while suspending four of its inspectors, placed the blame on unnamed local politicians. Coast Guard operations officer Cirilo Ortiz said certain politicians had prevailed on the Coast Guard office in this province to give the overloaded boat the green light.

The motorized outrigger boat MT Nilode – earlier erroneously identified by local officials as the MV Melody – capsized at around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday [May 11], about 20 minutes after it had left port here for nearby Maripipi Island.

Espina said survivors told officials the boat capsized when many passengers, bothered by the scorching sun, moved over to one side of the vessel to cool themselves in the shadows.

“The boat tilted and took in water,” Espina said.

Rolando Delabahan, 21, the boat’s engine mechanic, said many of the passengers sat on to the top of the cabin, which was also stacked with 10 sacks of rice.

Only a few passengers were inside the cabin, he said.

Delabahan said the crew advised the passengers not to make unnecessary movements as the vehicle was full and the sea was a bit choppy.

But Marcos Galicia, 65, claimed that the sea was calm at the time of the accident.

But about 20 minutes into the trip, the afternoon sun appeared from behind the clouds. The passengers seated on the left side ramp and roof of the cabin then started to transfer to the right section, which had some shade. The movement caused the boat to trip over to the right.

Many of the passengers were revelers who had joined the morning parade and street-dancing contest for the 10th anniversary celebration of Biliran province.

One of the fatalities was Josephine Malanan, wife of ferry owner Alfredo.

Espina said Malanan and the Coast Guard officers in this capital town should be made liable for the tragedy. He said he wanted Lt. Alex Gemina, head of the Coast Guard in Naval, relieved from his post because the ferry was clearly overloaded.

Gemina admitted that the boat was overloaded. He said the Nilode only had a 30-person capacity “but when it departed, it (had) 94 passengers based on our count.”

But he also washed his hands of the tragedy. Gemina said the Coast Guard officer on duty, PO2 Jose Alamo, told Malanan not to depart because the boat had already exceeded its capacity.

In fact, Gemina said, Malanan was “made to sign an ‘apprehension report’ to prove that he was advised not to leave the port as the motorboat was overloaded.”

Malanan signed the paper, but nevertheless departed from the port while Alamo was allegedly not looking.

But Gemina could not explain why nothing was done to stop the departure even though the Coast Guard office was only about 25 meters from the docking area of the wharf.

Gemina said that if anybody should be held responsible, it should be Malanan.

The INQUIRER went to the Biliran Provincial Hospital to interview Malanan, but his relatives said he could not be disturbed because he was still “in shock” over his wife’s death.

Coast Guard officials had initially cleared the ferry to leave with 15 passengers on Saturday morning, but more passengers coming from the town celebration boarded the boat after the inspectors left, Ortiz said.

When the Coast Guard officers discovered that the ferry had been overloaded, they refused to allow it to sail, but local politicians allegedly convinced them to change their minds, he said.

“We have set up a fact-finding commission to investigate what happened and we will file criminal charges against those responsible,” Espina said.

“Among those we will investigate are the boat owners and the Coast Guard personnel for allowing the boat to leave, knowing there was overloading.”

The 19 fatalities were all women and children. One of the victims, 3-year-old Rondulf Gabin “RG” Rolona, was found to have drunk seawater contaminated with crude oil, according to Dr. Noel Albelda, provincial health officer.

The victims included the wife and two children of Michael Aguilos, station manager of Radyo Natin-Naval: Marites, 25; Mikey, 4; and Michaela, 3. Last Saturday was also the Aguilos’ third wedding anniversary.

Aside from Josephine Malanan, the fatalities were Inocenta Adaptante, Erlinda Adaptante, Prudenciado de Loyola, Juanita Radam Rigodon, Carmelita Casio, Segundina Culibra, Remedios Radam, Renelia Leorad, Virgilia Sereño, Ferminia Raagas, Ofelia Martinez, Salud Arradaza, Comedesa Radam and Josefina Gaviola. With reports from AP, AFP and Reuters


They came, saw, but didn’t stay

NAVAL, Biliran – They came, they saw, but didn’t stay.

Two military generals arrived in this capital town early yesterday, in the wake of the ferry accident on Saturday afternoon that killed 19 women and children.

Their dramatic arrival at 6:30 a.m. – they used two helicopters, one white Sikorsky rescue chopper and a Huey – stirred not only the dust in this municipality but also the expectations of a grief-stricken people.

But minutes after receiving a briefing from Gov. Rogelio Espina at Naval wharf, where the accident site could be viewed, the generals – Jacinto Ligot, Central Command chief, and Romeo Dominguez, 8th Infantry Division chief – left.

People alerted by the arrival of the helicopters at an unusual time noted that the generals left without taking a closer look at the half-sunk MT Nilode (not MB Melody, as earlier identified by local officials), which was only a few meters away.

The 60-foot motorized passenger boat, its right outrigger broken, had been towed from the accident site and docked at the wharf, near the helicopters’ landing site.

The boat’s passengers were revelers who had joined the Saturday morning parade and street-dancing contest for the 10th anniversary celebration of Biliran province and were on their way back to Maripipi Island.

President [Gloria] Macapagal-Arroyo, who visited this capital town on the night of May 10 and attended the Miss Biliran and Miss Biliran Tourism Pageant at the gymnasium of the Naval Institute of Technology, expressed sympathy for the victims of the tragedy.

She did so in a telephone call to Rep. Gerry Espina, the governor’s father, a call aired live over Radyo Natin-Naval at around 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, five hours after the accident. Rolando O. Borrinaga, PDI Visayas Bureau

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