The fate of Sulpicio’s Princess of the Stars calls to my mind a traumatic memory which happened in mid – January of this year.
My mother, my sister and I were in Cebu City for my mother’s regular medical check up. During that time, there were no airline flights plying the Butuan – Cebu – Butuan route, so we had no choice but to ride the ship — Sulpicio’s M/V Princess of the Earth. Our accomodation was in a suite room which was only good for two persons. My sister’s ticket was a cabin accomodation, but she stayed in our room because ours had a king sized bed.
We left Cebu at around eight o’clock in the evening. We slept early because we were tired — having arrived in the morning from Butuan, went to the hospital, a little shopping, and back again for Butuan the same day. My sister had colds that time and had a stuffy nose. Thus, it was an effort for her to breath normally.
In my sound sleep, I awakened to my sister’s frenzied shakes. When I opened my eyes, I could not see clearly. It was cloudy. I heard my sister say that the ship’s on fire. Our suite room was heavy with smoke. It was hard to breathe with the smoke penetrating my lungs. My sister told my mother and me to vacate the room immediately and she got the lifejackets. There were only two for the room was only for two persons. My mother and my sister hurriedly slipped on the lifejackets while I frantically changed my clothes because I was in a nightgown.
When we went out, everything was in chaos. The whole portion of the ship for the tourist, cabin and suite accomodations were laid in heavy smoke. It smelled of something burning. Persons were screaming, saying the ship was on fire and some were also looking for any member of the ship crew. Children were weeping. Some mothers were also crying because they could not find their children.
My sister wanted to go back to her cabin to get the lifejacket for me, but I told her it would already be dangerous because everybody was going down so we better go with the flow.
I could not see any member of the crew so that I could ask for a lifejacket. Surprisingly, a kindhearted man threw me a lifejacket seeing that I did not wear one. Again, no crew member was there to explain what was happening and what we were supposed to do.
My sister called a friend through her cellphone. Her friend’s sister survived the Super Ferry tragedy which sanked in Bataan about two years ago. My sister wanted to know what she did to survive. Her friend advised us to look for a crew member and stay with him because the latter was supposed to lead us to the life boats. That’s how her sister survived.
We looked around and again, no member of the crew was in sight. My sister told me to remember where the life boats were located because we need to be near there, just in case. Neither of us could locate where it was, so we just stood there in our lifejackets.
By this time everybody was in their lifejackets and already lining up in the rails, as if getting ready to jump at the very dark sea. All were busily calling family members to inform them of the situation. I called my husband – it was almost 1:00 in the morning – and told him that there seems to be fire in the ship because there was heavy smoke everywhere. He told me to look for any crew member but I told him none was visible. I did not call him because I thought I would die; that time, I did not honestly think there was real danger and I could probably die. I called him to tell him I might be home late in the morning because of the problem and told him not to wait for me when he leaves for Davao City later in the morning. We also called the rest of the family for their prayers. They were all shocked and helpless.
I kept looking at the dark sea ahead. I felt the very cold wind. I looked down, the ship’s so high above sea level. I wondered how we were supposed to jump to the sea. I might hit my head on any part of the ship in the process. My mother was trembling. She said she did not know how to swim. My sister said there’s no way we can survive the cold waters. We need to find a life boat.
Everybody just stood still. Just waiting for any instructions or just an explanation on the problem, but none ever came.
About forty minutes later, more or less, a member of the crew finally emerged running to the direction of the tourist, cabin and suite rooms upstairs, at the same time yelling that there was nothing to fear because it was just the fanbelt of the air conditioning unit, which, through friction, developed into a smoke.
He was met by the complaints and rantings of the passengers. Evidently, they were angry why it took so long for any of the crew to address the problem and explain the situation to the people because the latter was already in the state of panic.
The central air conditioning unit was turned off and the smoke started to subside. Then, members of the crew started coming out telling everybody to go back because it was okay. Slowly, the crowd thinned as they went back to their rooms. We stayed behind due to my sister’s insistence that it might not be safe yet. She said that in the case of her friend’s sister (the one who survived), what started out as fire developed into an explosion after several moments. So we lingered to where we were, just in case something worse would happen.
After over an hour of just sitting in the receiving area, we went back to our room. On the way back, I belatedly studied the ship and read the signs. Instead of going back to the route we took when we boarded the ship, we should have gone the opposite way where it says "emergency exit". I went there and viola, there were the lifeboats lined up just about ten steps from our door.
The life boats were PADLOCKED in their cases. How would we have managed to find the key to gain access thereto? I read the instructions. Okay, just in case we had the key, we were supposed to pull something there which would immediately inflate the life boat to sea. No problem with that. But, if we managed to do this, the boat automatically "jumps" to sea…how do we ride it, when I’m sure those at sea would have ridden it before us??? Next, it says there that after the boat inflates, we need first to CUT the rope (about three inches thick) to free the boat. Where in the world would we get the scissor to cut it????? AND IN A TIME CONSTRAINED SITUATION??? The ship would have sunk first before we could do all of it.
Thank God somebody caught the fire before it spread. Even if it were only a fanbelt, I believe the consistent friction which caused the heavy smoke would have naturally developed into a full blown fire, then we would have been in grave trouble.
After that incident, I so wanted to report the matter to the authorities because of the inaction of the crew members. Imagine, they did not even bother to wake the passengers in the rooms. What if someone suffocated from the heavy smoke in their rooms? It was a blessing that my sister had stuffy nose and taking effort in breathing because it woke her up, when she was already breathing heavy smoke. The crew was not even there to appease the passengers and guide them what to do next in case the situation worsens. Minus klase, that’s what they are. Incompetent crew. My laziness took the better of me and I never managed to write a letter of complaint. I’m now regretting why I did not bother to even write a letter to the management of Sulpicio Lines regarding the inefficacy of their crew. Maybe the management would have done something so that their crew would have better skills in handling emergency situations.
Reports on the sunken M/V Princess of the Stars state that the passengers trapped in the ship were wearing lifejackets. It was also mentioned that the instruction to abandon ship came too late, only when the ship was already sinking. I bet the passengers (God bless their souls) were just like us then, ready with the lifejackets and just awaiting instructions from the crew on what to do next. I think they would have jumped and abandoned the ship had they been told earlier and when there was still time to do so. I also took note that the survivors were only those who managed to board the lifeboats.
I was so elated when Cebu Pacific and PAL Express started servicing the Butuan – Cebu – Butuan route. I don’t see myself boarding any ships in the near future.