Saturday, August 29, 2009

Franco's Friends for Safe Travel in the Philippines

(Travelling is best on long weekends and most families make the best of travelling to resorts. But travel safety in the Philippines has its downside. Read on.)

This is going to be another long weekend for most Filipinos in the Philippines with Monday next week being a non-working holiday. Certainly, we can expect resorts and hotels in the Philippines to be packed solid with people trying to make the most out of the long weekend.

At the beginning of this week, I had been discussing plans for this weekend with a couple of friends at work and then, for some reason, talk turned to a cause on Facebook called Franco's Friends for Safe Travel in the Philippines.

For the most part, I have learned to take the dangers of travelling in the Philippines for granted. I've gotten used to all the road hazards in Metro Manila and I generally don't think twice about taking my family on a boat ride on a Roro (roll-on, roll-off vessel) to Marinduque.

I have been going by the assumption that an ordinary level of careful driving will get me from point A to point B safely -- though sometimes, this assumption gets severely tested by bus drivers, jeepneys and careless car drivers.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to take a long break with my wife and son (who was just barely one year old at that time), and we took a long drive to Lucena, after which, we boarded a Roro to Marinduque. The ship, which must have been around twenty years old, was listing a bit on one side and I asked the crew members of the boat if it was still safe. I was assured it was and was told that the ship could handle heavier loads. I still had my doubts, but then, it dawned on me that I either could just take his word for it or wait for a couple of hours for the next Roro.

Being already tired from driving for three hours straight, I decided to chance the sea crossing and just pray that the boat doesn't sink. Thankfully, it didn't and we arrived safely in one of Marinduque's ports.

Yesterday, I had lunch with another family who made a sea crossing to Tamaraw beach in Mindoro three months ago and their story is one of a continuing tragedy which began when the outrigger pump-boat they rode capsized. Their story made me realize that my assumptions about safely travelling around thePhilippines have to be revised.

The picture that you see at the beginning of this post is Franco and the picture of the kid in the pink sando is my kid, Zac -- who just turned two. When I saw Franco's picture, my heart lurched and it was then that I decided to take up Franco's cause for safe travel.

Mon, Monique, and Franco Eugenio were off to Tamarraw beach for a family outing.

Mon recounts that on the morning that they were preparing to travel to Mindoro, Franco kept asking his yaya for reassurance that she was his hero. Mon said he passed it off as one of the usual exchanges Franco had with his yaya, but he also noticed that his three year old son was a bit hesitant for some reason. Normally, Mon said, Franco would be excited at the prospect of travelling and the prospect of going to a beach was something that would have him thrilled.
Here is an account of what happened to the Eugenio family three months ago:
This is the story of the Eugenio and Cruz family that decided to go on holiday to White Beach in Puerto Galera that fateful day. As any holidaymaker to Puerto Galera going by public transport, they drove to Batangas Pier that morning and took the next boat, a 50-foot outrigger banca, leaving for their destination. This was the Commando 7. Its sister ship, Commando 6 was berthed nearby. Commando 7 had 42 passengers while Commando 6 had 8. Some member of the crew or the crew as a collective then made the decision to move 42 passengers from Commando 7 to Commando 6 which meant at least 48 people to start with were in one boat (this is the recollection of Ramon Eugenio, survivor, but bereaved of a son, a nephew and a mother on that day). Add the crew and other passengers who subsequently came in at the last minute and there were about 60 people on board, gross overloading for a boat licensed to carry 42.

Passengers usually do not see the capacity of the boat, which has to be printed on its slde. On a banca with outriggers, the side of the hull slopes down to the water and the bamboo outriggers probably obscure the markings. Meanwhile, the captain of Commando 6 fraudulently submitted a manifest listing 42 passengers, and the Coast Guard did not check it.

Weather was seemingly fine as they set off. Under fair weather conditions, boats to Puerto Galera sail almost due south from 190 to 200 degrees. Commando 6 took instead a 170-degree course to better face the waves, which brought it near Balahibong Manok, an islet just before the Verde Island Passage.

This point is where the strong current of the generally choppy Verde Island Passage meets the habagat (Southwest monsoon wind). The current, meanwhile, goes South or East. As the current meets the habagat head on, there ensues the rough ride that Verde Island Passage is known for.

Crews on these boats are generally competent and caring but they act otherwise when obeying orders of land-based operators who want to save fuel and make a bigger buck from one trip. They are also at the mercy of wooden-hulled motorized bancas that are made of light materials but travel at speeds 2 or 3 times beyond what these materials are made for—the outrigger banca is an ancient sailboat design that was never meant to be propelled beyond sail speeds.

Eugenio estimates the waves in the passage were 1 to l.5 meters high. The peculiarity of the waves in the Verde Island Passage is that they are closely spaced, which causes a lot of splashing. The crew pulled down plastic blinds on each side of the boat to protect against the splashes, completely enclosing the passengers. No lifevests were distributed. They were somewhere on the shelves above.

The moment of peril came after three or four strong successive waves hit the banca causing its right outrigger to break which in turn created a fatal drag, causing the banca to broach (flip over diagonally), trapping the passengers within the plastic sheeting. Mon Eugenio was somehow thrown outside the boat into the sea, stunned by a hit on the head. When he came too he could not find anyone. His mother, 3-year-old son, 2-year-old nephew and their nanny were unseen. They and many of the passengers were trapped inside by the plastic blinds. His older son, also trapped, was somehow saved. In the end, 12 were killed out of the 60 aboard.

Everyone who could clung to the overturned hull of the boat for two hours. That is how long it took for the Coast Guard to come. The Commando 6 had no working radio after the accident; like many of the other boats, the crew depends on cell phones or passing boats whose people might see what is happening and set off the alarm. At least two boats passed by, but did not help the survivors. Some of their passengers even took pictures or videos as they sailed by.

And that is how two families lost loved ones, imperiled their lives and experienced the indifference of fellow mortals as they had to fight for survival on a designated holiday.
Three months after the incident, the Board of Marine Inquiry as well as the Marina (which is in charge of ensuring the safety of all those who travel by sea in the Philippines) has done nothing.

Here is a note on Facebook written by Mon:

9th Day Remarks

Good evening

Tonight marks, in our Catholic tradition, the 9th day of prayers. Thank you all for being here, dear family and friends.

As many of you know, both my sons were both born prematurely. When Paolo was born 9 years ago, he was six and a half months and is one of the youngest survivors of Makati Med. It took us another 6 years before Franco was born. In his case, Monique was advised bed rest as soon as she was discovered pregnant, however, for some reason, her water disappeared and only 1/3 was left. Again, he was delivered by emergency CS.

Because of these circumstances, I always believed that my sons were born for some great purpose, as fathers are wont to believe about their children.

I always wondered how Franco might have turned out: I monitored his growth charts as Dr Pia, our pediatrician, will tell you. He was robust: his height at 70 percentile, his weight around 90. He was intelligent as Teachers Ciara and Triccie will tell you: He thinks before he acts, always observing and acting accordingly.

He was bubbly, often barging into the room with “Good Morning, Mama and Dada!” and flashing his usual biggest, warmest smile. He had a fantastic sense of humor and his timing was impeccable.

He could tell you the storylines of his favorite Disney movies, for example Cars, and then line up the characters in a single line, pulling out Lightning or Mater or Doc if they were in the scene, then returning them when they were not. He was very loving: “Kuya Pao, I need a hug”, or “Yaya Bambi, don’t worry, I’ll buy that pink phone for you”. He loved to clutch at your elbow, and while in an embrace, give you a tap-tap on the back. Strangely, I would look at his face and think to myself “God, I hope it is my fortune to see this face while I live”.

I miss Franco’s face. We have received messages from some of you, who have said things like ‘I marvel at your strength’ or about being examples of faith, hope and courage. I want you to know that we still grieve, and we grieve deeply. When we are alone, we view all his pictures and videos, and a simple glimpse of these brings heartbreak. We are wrecks when we are alone, that’s why I thank you all for your love and prayers. They have helped us go through this trying time. Many of you have said that God has given you an angel. That is true, and the truth is also that the angels that God sent are the very people that stand before me tonight. Sinners we all are, but when our common good come together, I can only see pure, selfless love from all of you. And this, against a backdrop of what happened that Black Saturday, gives us Hope.

It would be a tragedy if we all went home tonight content with the nine-day prayers we have just finished. It would be unacceptable to me if their deaths were in vain, so it behooves us to do something about what government or private enterprise cannot prevent by themselves. I am guilty. I read the papers all the time, and think to myself, this could never happen to me. Not to me, I thought. But because it happened to me, it could happen to you, God forbid. Or it could happen to me again.

So my friend Roby Alampay created a Cause on Facebook called Franco’s Friends for Safe Travel in the Philippines and already, lawyers, boat builders, government officials, civil society, and even moms and dads are getting together to tackle the problems we face. We love to travel, and we must find ways to make getting from point A to point B as safe as possible. As of 12:20pm today, he has amassed 1,249 friends in much less than 72 hours. It took me a good year and a half to get to this number.

This is a good first sign that people are outraged, that people care, that people want to make a difference where they are. Monique and I are determined that this will be our advocacy, just as cousin Bobbit has done with his Carewell Foundation.

So perhaps this is Franco’s legacy on earth, the great purpose he was meant to do. To make this world where we live a little better, a little safer. We can’t do it alone, but as you have already shown, we can achieve great things together. Of him, I am already proud.
We have to junk our assumptions that we can travel safely around the country or even in Metro Manila.

If we want to tell ourselves that Philippine tourism will grow or keep on growing, or pat ourselves on the back for passing the Tourism Act, perhaps we should also give a higher priority to ensuring safe travel.


As citizens, who do we go to in order to get this done?

1 comment:

bayong said...

sana lng natutulog ang balita..para may long week end din kame...

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