Monday, July 15, 2013

PURE SURVIVAL CHRONICLES: Vincent Canape and the Princess of the Orient

IN THE COURSE OF my life’s journey, I have met many people who were survivors of different mishaps and catastrophes and they lived to tell their experiences, circumstances and predicaments. While others I came across to, are witnesses of, or have been recipient of tales from these survivors, it still are stories worth telling. I am an eager listener and I always remember the stories very well and added these pieces of information into my “library of self-preservation”. This blog is, in itself, a repository of pure survival tales.

On one occasion when I looked for a material as basis of a survival documentary video where I have a significant role, I travelled to Ocaña, Carcar City, Cebu on April 14, 2013 to meet a real survivor in person. Right after I came down from a bushcraft sortie in Lower Sayaw, Sibonga in the late afternoon, I met Vincent Canape sitting under a shed beside the road. Immediately, I introduced myself to him and we made conversation. Here is his account:

On September 18, 1998, I was a crew of the ill-fated M/V Princess of the Orient. The passenger ship is owned by the now-defunct Sulpicio Lines, Inc. I was assigned in the Engine Department and detailed as Assistant Machinist. That night, I was off-duty and slept in my cabin when I was awoken by the unusual shift of the boat’s angle. I went out and I saw passengers and other crew in panic. I immediately went to the bridge, where most of the crew were, to await of instructions from the boat captain.

I understood that we were now in the vicinity of Fortune Island yet it was still open sea. We sailed right into the path of a storm Signal Number 1 codenamed ‘Vicki’ by PAGASA. We were not denied by the Philippine Coast Guard to sail through despite the inclement weather so my captain decide to leave Manila for Cebu instead. There I was along the gunwale of the boat’s starboard side passing life vests to the passengers. By now, the boat was already listing at an alarming angle. The ship was battered by huge waves as the storm picked up more strength and now people were panicking and put their fate into the rough seas and jumped from the unstable boat...

The M/V Princess of the Orient is a steel-hulled passenger ship acquired by Sulpicio Lines, Inc. from Japan in 1993. It was built in 1974 and was formerly known as M/V Sunflower II. It had a length of 195 meters, a width of 24 meters and weigh 13,734 tons. It could accommodate 3,900 passengers at one time along its first, second, and third levels. Besides passengers, the ship could take in container and wheeled cargoes into its hold. It is a roll-on roll-off type of ship. On that date, there were only 388 passengers with a complement of 102 crews.

It is a big ship by Philippine standards and very sea-worthy. I have ridden this once on one of my trips to Manila but it was during fair weather. What I remembered ships flying the flag of Sulpicio Lines is that these are very spacious and you could navigate easily among the aisles between sleeping cots and along corridors. All the ships have exteriors painted white while the interiors are green. I could picture quite well how Vincent reacted and went about his way within the ship. Vincent further narrated:

Although the ship was in considerable trouble, it had not stopped engine and it still gave off illumination. I see a highly-agitated mass of people on the dark waters struggling to float themselves despite the huge waves that swamped upon them. Those who did not have life vests with them hanged on to flotsam and floating people. Amid the roaring wind, the swoosh of huge waves, the hum of a slowly-dying engine and the repeated splash of the ship’s propeller, I could hear people shouting to other people. A lot of them were calling their loved ones trying to find them among the pandemonium while others where snarling at others for space in the convoluted jostling for survival.

When I could not tolerate anymore of my well-being on the outbalanced ship, I took chance by jumping into the water. As I was doing so, a piece of glass hit my left forearm, just below the elbow, but nothing serious. What I am worried of, is my bleeding as it might be smelled by sharks. I struggled to free myself from the tangle of outstretched arms that tend to grab you from all angles. From my level, I could see my captain and Judge German Lee still on the listing ship in the process of distributing life jackets to the passengers and, then, in one huge splash, the ship keeled down on its side. It was the last time I saw them...

The late German Lee was one of the most upright people I have met and so very humble despite his respected position in the judiciary and business circles. He was part of a breed of old-school gentlemen that I have thought vanished years ago. While he was still alive, he was the Executive Judge of all regional trial courts in Central Visayas; a co-author of the standard textbook in Philippine colleges and secondary schools – The Philippine Constitution Explained; and owned hotels in Cebu City. He could have saved himself but, like the ship captain, he would rather go down with the ship and give others a chance to get on with their lives. At the very last moment, he was at his best form; a shining example of a public servant.

I saw the ship take in water but it did not capsized bottoms up. Instead it changed position and the ship stood above water with the prow rising. I could do nothing now to help others and I steered away from the mass of screaming and desperate people. There were now no more lights and I hang on to myself just to survive the cold stormy night. I remembered my SOLAS training and I decide to preserve my body heat by not moving so much. I prayed and called aloud all the saints in heaven. Just then, a weeping boy, separated from his parents, floated near me and I grabbed the boy close to my body. I comforted the boy to stay calm and assured him that we will survive this ordeal.

Sustained by the added heat of the boy’s body, I survived the cold night until it was daylight. The typhoon had not abated but I could see better my situation. I was hungry and tired but I was now motivated to stay alive especially now that I was responsible for the boy’s survival as well. Floating bloated bodies passed by us and I recognized a pretty woman whom I just knew on this trip. She was supposed to celebrate their town fiesta in Danao City but, as fate would have it, she became one of the victims of this sea tragedy. I felt guilty that I am alive and I cried...

I asked Vincent if ever the training he received during SOLAS helped him during the time when the ship caught trouble and after the time when he jumped ship to steer his own fate on a stormy sea? “Yes”, he says. In case you would want to know, SOLAS is short for Safety Of Life At Sea. It is a compulsory course for anyone wishing to board and work on a ship and is taught at maritime institutes under the mandate of the International Maritime Organization’s Standard of Training Certification and Watchkeeping ratified in 1978 which the Philippine Coast Guard is enforcing. It is divided into four different parts: Fire Fighting and Fire Prevention; Survival Craft Handling; Personal Survival at Sea; and First Aid. This writer took SOLAS in 1986.

The boy did survive and was reunited with his parents. By twist of providence, the boy is his neighbor! He was seven years old when he was shipwrecked and today he is either 21 or 22. Filipinos, through close family relationships and sentimental considerations, whether they worked or lived in other places here or abroad, would likely come home during town fiestas instead of during Christmas or other occasions except when paying final respects to a passing family member. The woman was one of them and would have found her homecoming memorable if she had survived. In all, 150 passengers died.

After eighteen hours of surviving seasickness, hunger, thirst, drowsiness, mixed emotions and mild hypothermia, rescue arrived. A Philippine Navy gunboat came in the late afternoon and plucked me and the boy from our watery stranglehold. I passed out due to exhaustion but consoled by, the fact, that I am in safe hands. I woke up in the hospital but I could not ease out of my trauma. I was shocked and dazed by the string of events and, sometimes, I would just suddenly wake up in the middle of my sleep and shook for several minutes, my mind could not still accept the tragedy that befell on my ship, my crewmates and the passengers, especially the children, the old people and that pretty woman.

I returned to sailing with Sulpicio Lines again and I would have been on my second tragedy that had befallen on the M/V Princess of the Stars in 2008 but, by quirk of fate, I was denied to board it. I have not forgotten the faces and some of them were my friends.

I have also ridden the M/V Princess of the Stars before it capsized near Sibuyan Island in June 2008. It also were sailing under the mercy of another tropical storm when it ran into a reef and take in water so swift that the ship keeled over to its hull leaving the majority of passengers and crew a few moment to save themselves.

After fourteen years, Vincent could not partly go over that tragic incident. It is now part and parcel of his soul, of his whole life; and memories sometimes can come in from the dark corners of loneliness and wake up well-rested issues of our lives. His eyes show the ghosts that still haunt him in his dreams. Vincent have decided to give up the job that had been his bread and butter and settled in the safe comforts of solid ground right after that second near-miss of his life.

Document done in LibreOffice 3.3 Writer


Anonymous said...

Superb, Jing, Superb :)
Very professional.

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