Death by drowning in Laguna de Bay

The MB Aya Express is half-submerged off the waters of Binangonan, Rizal, on July 28, as search and rescue operations continue. —PNA PHOTO BY JOAN BONDOC

Friday on ANC, the skipper of the Aya Express, Donald Anain, recounts what happened in the waters of Laguna de Bay off Binangonan, Rizal, on July 27. Snippets of the tragedy were reported by some survivors a day earlier, more or less jibing with Anain’s account of how, buffeted by strong winds, the motorized banca tilted, leaned precariously on its left side, and eventually capsized. He gestures with his hands to make a point, and the viewer sees that they are cuffed.

So the kapitan is now in custody, indicating that the procedure to determine accountability for the death by drowning of 26 or 27 persons (the reports vary) has begun. It’s unclear exactly when the official investigation started, and by which agency. The Aya Express’ safety certificate has reportedly been suspended by the Maritime Industry Authority. The Coast Guard station commander and one other officer have supposedly been relieved of their posts, but as of this writing there is neither photograph nor footage in the media showing them handcuffed and in the custody of law enforcers. It’s unclear who and where they are; the viewer recalls a survivor saying no Coast Guard personnel were present when the Aya Express left the port in Barangay Kalinawan and headed to Talim Island some eight kilometers away at about 1 p.m. 

Survivors said the boat had been draped with a tarpaulin—lona—to protect the passengers from the intermittent rain brought by Typhoon “Egay” in the course of its pounding the north and making its way out of the Philippine area of responsibility. When the Aya Express capsized, according to accounts, the tarp served to block the passengers from getting out from under the boat.

Familiar circumstances 

The circumstances of the tragedy are infuriatingly familiar, demonstrating once more the ever unsafe state of sea transport in this unhappy archipelago. Per some survivors’ accounts, as reported, the passengers were not wearing life vests; the boat that had the capacity for 42 passengers was carrying close to 70 persons, as well as sacks of rice or sand, even a motorcycle; there were no Coast Guard personnel at the port before the boat set off.

And one critical detail, as stated by the Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Artemio Abu, in an Inquirer report: “The Coast Guard no longer conducted an inspection. It’s a normal routine because what was indicated in the [manifest] was below the authorized number, As such the boat was allowed to sail.”

One wonders who gave the green light when there was no person in authority—the Coast Guard in this case—to give it. And in the terrible weather yet, with the typhoon “enhancing” the southwest monsoon and making possible for fierce winds to toss the Aya Express around like a paper boat in the lake.

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In these parts, ordinary folks have long been boarding paper boats to get to where they need to go, putting their lives on the line and giving thanks to the Divine when they make it in one piece. At least two of the 40 reported survivors were heard saying they surrendered their fate to God at that point in the infinity between Kalinawan and Talim when the boat capsized—the middle-aged woman flailing about for anything to hang on to in the dark waters and espying a floating bag that turned out to be carrying the groceries she had bought and was bringing home to Talim, the young man catching a shaft of light through a tear in the lona and forcing himself through it with all his strength, to maneuver his way to the surface. 

Neither of them knew how to swim. Neither, it may be presumed, did most of the others who perished, simple folk who regularly took a motorized banca—the only means of transport, apart from private boat—in shuttling to and from the mainland and Talim. 

Small town

Described as the largest island in Laguna de Bay and the largest lake island in the Philippines, Talim (pop. 40,018 as of 2020) is hilly and volcanic in origin. It holds much potential for tourism in the form of pristine hiking trails and scenic views from certain high points on the island, according to a study, but plans to that effect have apparently moldered on the drawing boards, in the way of small towns that have dropped under the radar and continue to sink from the attention of authorities.

And as in other small towns, the story goes, the kapitan was on down-home mode. He was said to have turned his boat around, twice, to collect still more passengers from the port, apparently feeling sorry for those who would be stranded because of the “no sail” directive made imperative by the foul weather—the boat’s capacity, the raw weather conditions, the manifest be damned, in the course of living life on the edge, of trying to stay alive by the skin of one’s teeth. (Perhaps the additional fare was also a plus factor.)

Anain’s crew of two, reported only by their nicknames, were among those who died. It’s unclear exactly how many were on board the Aya Express when it capsized; the divers engaged in the retrieval operations were said to have been reduced to groping in the muddy bottom of the lake for bodies, so murky were the waters. It’s not known when the results of the investigation will be made public (granting that the inquiry is in progress), when accountability will be pinpointed, and when “justice” will be realized for all those who died (including children, it’s said). In these parts, as contemporary history will bear out, inquiries like this are notorious for taking months, years, to complete. 

But there will be “no sacred cows” in the conduct of the inquiry, Rear Adm. Hostillo Arturo Cornelio, commander of the Coast Guard District National Capital Region Central Luzon, has been quoted as telling reporters. And so it goes.

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