Saturday, December 11, 2010

Small town survives with big heart

By Tarra Quismundo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:56:00 12/12/2010

MANILA, Philippines—I found the Filipino heart on an island struggling through its worst disaster.

With a backpack, a pack of Oreos and a bit of courage, I landed on Sibuyan Island on June 24, 2008, anxious about my toughest assignment yet: to cover the search and retrieval operations in the aftermath of the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars.

But beyond the grim stories of lives lost and lives changed, I saw—and experienced—a town with a big heart. The townsfolk of San Fernando welcomed strangers like long-lost friends, selflessly sharing themselves and the little left of their resources even when they had to make do.

It did not take long for me to feel at home. And this sense of family, of familiarity in a place so new, led me to find intimate stories—the kind that just had to be told.

There was the overwhelmed but determined Mayor Nanette Tansingco who, at one point, broke into tears and pleaded for help for her hometown. San Fernando (pop: 22,000) was grappling with twin tragedies at the time. On top of the sinking of the ferry, its people were also trying to cope with lost homes and livelihood in the wake of Typhoon “Frank.”

Breath of fresh air

The power supply was intermittent and virtually all communication lines were down when the swarm of emergency workers and journalists arrived on the island. (I landed with neither map nor itinerary, but I always found my way with the help of gracious locals throughout my 10-day stay.)

No public transport was in sight at the clearing where we were dropped off by an Air Force chopper some seven kilometers away from the town proper—the only viable landing zone at the time. But I and the other journalists did not have to wait long; the locals readily offered us a ride on their scooters.

My scooter “kuya” (elder brother) did not ask to be paid—a breath of fresh air from taxing Manila. I insisted on at least covering for gas.

The town hall was too kind a host. The lone computer in town connected to the Internet during the early days of search and rescue was my only lifeline to the Inquirer News Desk in Manila. And the mayor’s staff always yielded the workstation when it was time for me to send my stories.


On my second day there, Anna Magno, a mother of five, recalled how she had lost her seaside home to a storm surge never before seen on the island.

She and her children, all very young, were among the evacuees who slept in a classroom in the town’s elementary school, turning desks into beds and the muddy hallway into a kitchen.

In a coastal barangay near the sunken ferry, fishermen lamented their unwanted idle time. There was a feared toxic leak from the shipwreck and fishing was banned in the rich waters of the Sibuyan Sea, keeping fishermen and their boats onshore.

But everywhere reporters went, the residents were ready with smiles and hearty greetings, often asking if we had eaten or had slept well.

To have strangers look after you in a place not your own kept the energy going despite long hours under the sun.

It eased the heavy feeling I always carried with me after a day at the site of the sunken ferry, where death and grieving became a daily fare no one can ever get used to.

Toward the end of my stay, Tita Nitz, our surrogate aunt who offered reporters a comfortable place to sleep, said the owner of the house—a cousin now living abroad—had called to say he was waiving our lodging fee.

We may never repay such generosity but we had to insist. So much good was going around that no price can ever match all the kindness, certainly not the meager amount we virtually forced Tita Nitz to accept.

Hugs and exchanges of contact details sent me off on the way back to Manila.


Back at work in the city, I’d always stare at the unsightly “X” tan line my sandals left on my feet from those Sibuyan days. I kind of wished the mark would stay longer.

More than just reminding me that I should have applied more sun block, the pale “X” on my sunburned feet was my badge—a badge that I had touched the heart of Sibuyan.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Aquino government urged to give justice to M/V Princess victims

By Rhodina Villanueva (The Philippine Star) Updated June 23, 2010 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines

- An environmental group has urged the incoming Aquino government to rectify the great injustice committed against the people of Sibuyan and Mother Nature by issuing an executive order that will cause the immediate resolution of the case involving victims of the M/V Princess of the Stars tragedy.

Roy Alvarez, president of EcoWaste Coalition, said the executive order should cause the completion of the retrieval operations, including the recovery of the remains of the victims and their decent interment upon proper identification, and ensure just compensation for all victims, as well as the environmentally-sound removal of the ship and exhaustive cleanup of the Sibuyan shores.

“The long overdue removal of the M/V Princess of the Stars is causing untold suffering to the people and environment of Sibuyan, which has earned the distinction of being called the ‘Galapagos of Asia’ for its rich biodiversity,” he said.

In solidarity with the Sibuyan people, the EcoWaste Coalition threw its support behind the latest plea made by the Our Lady of Re­medies Parish in the municipality of San Fernando and the Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for Environment Inc. (Sibuyan ISLE) on the occasion of the second anniversary of the sinking of M/V Princess of the Stars on June 21.

Fr. Noel Sixon and the Sibuyan ISLE scored concerned private companies and governmental agencies for failing to keep their promise of retrieving the remains of the victims still trapped inside the sunken ship and the removal of the ship itself from the coast of the famed Sibuyan Island.

Rodne Galicha, coordinator of Sibuyan ISLE, a partner group of the EcoWaste Coalition, said garbage washed ashore has transformed the seashore into a virtual dumping ground.

Aside from the huge containers of rotting cigarettes and other products stocked along the coast, Sibuyan ISLE reported that a company contracted for the initial retrieval operations had built three pits for waste disposal in Barangay Taclobo, San Fernando, contravening the local government’s directive not to leave any trash in the vicinity.

“The dumpsites are in clear violation of Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act and Republic Act 9275 or the Clean Water Act, which both forbid open dumping to prevent environmental pollution,” Alvarez said.

“We earnestly hope that P-Noy will give high priority to resolving this still evolving human and environmental tragedy during his first 100 days in office. The families of the victims and the people of Sibuyan have suffered long enough,” he said.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Order immediate retrieval of sunken ship, Aquino urged

SIBUYAN, Romblon, June 21, 2010— Residents of San Fernando in Sibuyan Island are urging President-elect Benigno Aquino to order the immediate retrieval of sunken ship M/V Princess of the Stars.

Two years since the boat sunk off the coast of Sibuyan island, full retrieval of the victims’ remains and other cargoes are yet to be accomplished.

Fr. Noel Sixon, parish priest of Our Lady of Remedies in San Fernando town lamented the inaction of concerned companies and agencies directly responsible for the retrieval operations.

“How many times that they promised to retrieve the sunken ship completely? Two years is enough for these promises. We pray for justice for these souls who have been taken for granted, who are still trapped in the indifference of the concerned agencies and companies,” Sixon said.

The tragedy has severely affected not only the lives of the victims’ families but his parishioners as well, the priest said.

“There are a lot of things to be done after the tragedy, not only the trauma and sadness of the bereaved family but also the lives and livelihood of my parishioners who are gravely affected by the typhoon which are left forgotten,” he said.

Taclobo village chief Arturo Mortera also demanded the immediate retrieval of the ship saying the people cannot anymore take another year of promise.

“As we seek justice for our fishermen and those who were affected, we demand for the complete retrieval of the remains of the passengers which are still trapped inside the ship, these poor souls are already part of our community,” he added.

A fishing ban was implemented after the sea tragedy which has affected many fishermen who depended on fishing as their main livelihood.

And even after the ban was lifted, fishing was deemed unsafe because of oil leak coming from vehicles trapped in the belly of the ship.

Rodne Galicha, coordinator of environmental group Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for Environment Inc. (Sibuyan ISLE) said the wastes and garbage washed ashore transformed the seashore into a virtual dumping ground.

“Huge containers have been stocked along the seashore with putrefying cigarette packs and other products, oil leaking from the ship and unretrieved cars and trucks, the remains of the victims still trapped, garbage pits on the island—these are some realities which continue to worry our island-people,” he said.

An earlier report also said the salvor company built three garbage pits in the area for waste disposal despite restrictions from the local government not to leave any waste in the area.

Galicha said the Aquino administration should include the completion of retrieval operations in the agenda of his first 100 days in office.

“In the first 100 days of incoming President Benigno Aquino, we urge him to look seriously into this tragedy with a sense of urgency,” he said.

Galicha said it is lamentable that the Arroyo government failed to pressure the companies and agencies involved to fully accomplish the retrieval operations. Two years is too long, he added. (CBCPNews)