SURIGAO CITY—They boarded the ill-fated St. Thomas Aquinas with a bounty of dreams: a young woman meeting her American fiancé, two sisters headed for Singapore to become domestic workers, a young father looking for work in Manila and an elderly couple seeking respite from age-related diseases.
Except for the father and woman, these Surigaonon passengers met death instead in the dark waters off Cebu.
The septuagenarian couple were scheduled for medical exams in Cebu. Vicente Ancla Jr. was suffering from arthritis and hypertension, while his wife Conchita had lupus.
Two of their six children who work abroad had booked them for check-ups at a premier hospital.
A granddaughter, 21-year old Sarah Ancla, said she was supposed to be on the boat to assist her grandparents, but her “lola” insisted at the last minute that she stay.
“Perhaps I would have also been dead right now if not for my grandmother’s decision,” Sarah said.
The same fate befell Delia Gulandrena, 30, and her younger sister Pilar. They were bound for Manila to prepare for their departure to Singapore, where they have been contracted to work as housekeepers for two years, said Jenny Sumando, a classmate of Delia.
“See you in 2015!” was the last text she received from her classmate.
“We were texting each other and talked about life when she was on the ship with her sister. She said she was looking forward to see me in two years because their contract in Singapore was good for two years,” Sumando said.
The bodies of the Gulandrena sisters were among those retrieved by drivers from the sunken ship. They are expected to arrive anytime this week, Sumando said, based on her talk with their relatives.
And then there are the survivors.
Jenalyn Saligunhay, 23, traveled to meet for the first time her American boyfriend in Manila, said her younger sister, Jackelyn.
She said her sister was able to call their parents to tell them she was OK and that she was being treated at a hospital in Cebu.
Jenalyn is not discouraged by the ordeal, her sister said. “She will still meet her beau after recovering at the hospital,” Jackelyn said.
But the more vivid account of survival came from Sumando’s cousin, Alden, 22, who witnessed how the bow of the MV St. Thomas Aquinas submerged—with scores of passengers still clinging to it.
Alden, who was to look for a job in Manila, said he was on the upper deck at the time of the collision to watch a music band.
“We heard a loud bang and everything on the ship moved, as if an earthquake just hit us,” he recalled.
When he and other passengers peered on the side to inspect what caused the impact, Sumando said he saw the bow the Sulpicio cargo ship pierced their ship near the portside.
The crew, he said, advised the panicking passengers to go back to their cabins. This was a mistake, Sumando said.
“They thought the ship would not go down that quick; they should have directed the passengers, especially those on lower decks, to head to the upper decks,” he said.
By his calculation, Sumando said the ship sank in just “under 10 minutes.”
“I saw mothers holding their babies and elderly men and women panicking, not knowing what to do or where to go,” he said.
He also saw passengers jumping out of the ship but instead hurt themselves when they hit parts of the ship.
Sumando said the sinking accelerated when the Sulpicio ship pulled back to separate from the 2GO vessel. When it did, he recalled seeing a gaping hole through which seawater immediately rushed in.
Seconds before the two vessels were finally apart, Sumando said he saw a few 2GO crew members leaping into the other ship for safety. Some, he said, helped in distributing life jackets and in assisting passengers.
The next part was tricky: saving himself.
Equipped with a life jacket, Sumando said he ran to the stern and slid into the waters with a rope. By that time, he said the ship’s rear was already tilting.
He said he saw the ship disappear bit by bit, with people clinging for their lives.
A newly married man, Sumando said the thoughts of his wife and their 5-month old baby kept him looking for ways to survive.
Thirty minutes later, he said he was picked up by one of the 2GO rubber boats and brought by a Bohol-bound boat to the Cebu pier.
Sumando arrived here from Cebu on Monday. He said 2GO took care of his plane ticket and gave him P5,000 as “partial financial assistance.”
However, he said he might join other survivors and relatives should they seek damages both from 2GO and Sulpicio.