SAN FERNANDO, Romblon, Philippines—A gold wedding ring was among personal effects found Friday by divers who went down into the wreckage of the Princess of the Stars in the hopes of locating the remains of about 400 passengers believed still trapped inside the ship that sank off Sibuyan Island five years ago.
Engraved on the ring the name Farah and what forensic investigators believed to be a wedding date: 10-6-07. It came from a bag that also contained a passport and other belongings of one Marlon Guinitaran from Balingasag, Misamis Oriental.
Also recovered was a plastic folder that contained the certificates awarded by the Far East Maritime Foundation in Cebu City to a seaman named Domino Omega.
In another bag were passbooks and documents of a Sgt. Rupert Tan of the Philippine Army.
There was also a school ID of a Mary Jane B. Sabuero of the Northern Mindanao School of Fisheries from a bag that contained a woman’s shirts and denim pants, now in tatters.
“These only strengthen our hopes of recovering the hundreds of bodies still down there,” said Persida Acosta, chief of the Public Attorney’s Office who arrived here Friday with a team of forensic experts to inspect the personal effects recovered from the wreckage of the Princess of the Stars.
The divers failed, however, on Friday to cut open the cabins of the ship where hundreds of bodies were believed to be trapped.
The Cebu-bound Princess of the Stars, owned by Suplicio Lines, capsized and sank at the height of Typhoon Frank on June 21, 2008. Of the 860 people on board, only 52 survived, says a memorial marker erected on the shore of Sitio Cabitangahan in Barangay Taclobo here.
It says 312 bodies were found during the initial years of recovery. Acosta said around 400 remained missing.
The ship’s hull, which was visible above the water until 2011, was removed, leaving the remaining half of the ship, composed of the four passenger and crew decks, 100 feet deep down the sea and 500 meters from the shore.
“We are now on the second phase (of the recovery),” said project engineer Vener Balsamo, who is working for the salvaging company, Hi-cap Metal Trading.
Royal Jessan was the original salvor until it sold the project to Hi-cap Metal Trading sometime in 2012.
“It’s not as simple as you think,” said Balsamo of pulling bodies out of the cabins. He cited the danger of being trapped inside the wreck, with the structure already weakened by rust.
The weather is also a factor, which allowed retrieval operations in 2012 to go on for only two months.
Balsamo said they planned to cut open each cabin, a process that might take them three to five years.
“We don’t mind how long. We will not stop looking for them. All we want is to give them a decent burial,” said Estella Jeli, 36.
Jeli, who is from Imus City in Cavite, lost her parents and three siblings in the sea tragedy. She came here with the PAO, hoping to find her still missing two siblings, Jonil and Jackie Laurel, who were 17 and 7 years old when the ship sank.
“Our objective in retrieving these personal effects is to identify the passengers who were not on the ship’s manifesto and to check the manifesto itself. These are pieces of evidence to prove these people were on board the ship,” said PAO forensic doctor Erwin Erfe.
Acosta vowed her office would not stop monitoring the retrieval of the bodies until the shipwreck is totally removed from Romblon.
Rodne Galicha, director of the non-governmental group Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for Environment, called on the national government to step in and help speed up the recovery, citing danger from solid wastes like shampoo, bath soaps, and even infant diapers in cargo trucks that are still inside the shipwreck.
Besides that, Galicha said, “no one deserves to be buried in the ocean. As Chief Acosta has always said, the victims deserved a decent burial.”