State of readiness

By: Manuel “Boy” Mejorada 

THE tragic deaths of nearly 31 people last Saturday when turbulent waters on the Iloilo strait caused three motor pumpboats to capsize bring to our consciousness the need for a constant state of readiness in dealing with calamities and accidents.

It was apparent that despite the awareness of our national and local officials about the daily hazards faced by thousands of people crossing this narrow strait between Iloilo and Guimaras, they were not properly equipped, and trained, to handle that kind of accident.

From the narrations of the survivors and the first responders, precious minutes were lost without our rescuers being able to do anything that would have extricated trapped passengers of the capsized vessels before they drowned.

As we have seen, the pumpboats capsized with the passengers unable to evacuate. They were trapped in the hull of the vessels, with little air that would have allowed them to survive. It was a heart-rending sight: rescuers trying their best to punch holes on the hulls to allow air inside and provide an opening for the evacuation of the trapped victims.

But the only tools the rescuers – actually porters on the Buenavista wharf who quickly jumped aboard other pumpboats to help the victims – had were axes. The hulls of these pumpboats are made of tough wood, and it was like using a spade to build a big dam. Frustrating. Futile. Ineffective.

And the Coast Guard was as helpless as the heroic rescue volunteers. While their powerful vessel provided a sense of reassurance that help was close by, there was nothing much they could do. There were no divers to go under the capsized vessels to bring out the victims. Each minute that passed by meant lives were being snuffed out as air ran out.

There will be recriminations about the inability of the Coast Guard to save lives that day. Many of us have seen films about powerful helicopters in other nations responding to accidents like this and being able to save lives with the heroism of trained divers. Nothing of the sort happened. The Coast Guard personnel used their sea craft to rush survivors from the sea to the Parola port and taken to local hospitals.  It was all they could do under the circumstances.

It usually takes tragedies like this to force the government to take forceful steps to prevent similar incidents in the future. And I would urge our LGUs, working with the Coast Guard, to adopt better crisis management measures to deal with this kind of situation.

One such measure is to form volunteer rescue teams on each side – Iloilo and Guimaras – with proper training and equipment. Training should include scuba diving. It’s not enough that we have brave men and women who would jump into the water without regard to their own safety. They must know what to do and have the means to do it, especially dive underwater with breathing apparatus and fins.  It would help to have diver propulsion vehicles to make it easier for them to navigate underwater. Again, time is always of the essence in situations like this. Each minute, nay each second, counts. The LGUs can provide fast rescue craft for the teams.

Another is the need for power tools. Nobody can question the courage of the rescuers in climbing board the hulls with axes and try to rip the structure apart. Even if there were enough axes that day, the death toll wouldn’t have gone down that much. On land, we have seen the use of hydraulic tools and equipment that allow emergency workers to rip open car doors in a matter of seconds in vehicle accidents. Perhaps chain saws or similar tools could be made available for this purpose.

The danger that lurks in that narrow crossing has always been in the minds of the boat captains and crew and passengers. But somehow, the ability to effectively respond to such accidents was never developed and honed.  I am not an expert on emergency rescue, but I hope to trigger ideas among our LGUs and national agencies like the Coast Guard to work on something like this.