The Sibuyen ferry disaster
When I heard that a ferry with 865 passengers onboard had sunk in the waters off Sibuyen Island in the central Philippines during Typhoon Fengshen, I set about trying to get there. My best bet was to hitch a ride on a Philippine Airforce helicopter.
So at 05:30 I was at a Manila airforce base, hoping to accompany the first flight of the search and rescue operation. All I had were the clothes on my back, a laptop, a satellite phone and one camera body.
My other camera body had been also been casualty of Typhoon Fengshen when it hit Manila but I was concerned that they would bump me off the flight if I carried too much.
At 07:00, I was still on the ground but with no sign of the opposition I worried that maybe they had hired their own aircraft and were already ahead of me. However, shortly afterwards we were on our way to Sibuyan Island.
After an hour and a half of flying, we caughtour first sight of the capsized ferry, the MV Princess of the Stars. I immediately began shooting pictures, but when I had done I was struck by the realisation that the ship was still full of the bodies of the victims.
We landed in a nearby town called San Fernando and before I began filing my pictures over the satphone I watched as the air force helicopter, the only form of transportation to the remote island, took off again. It was then that I realized I was the first agency photographer there.
A local guy told me that there had been four survivors and that they were staying at the municipal hall nearby. Their faces were covered in cuts and bruises – one described to me how he had jumped from the ferry and swum ashore, and how he had had to leave others behind for fear he too would drown.
I was offered overnight accommodation in a home which still had electricity and running water.
Next day I hired a small boat to get closer to the stricken ferry, saying silent prayers as the boatmen steered through enormous waves. As we approached, Coast Guard rescue divers had just recovered two bodies. They were bloated – almost unrecognisable.
Back on the shore, relatives and spectators were beginning to gather. Some days later a priest said mass for the victims, from a tugboat and relatives of the victims remebered their loved-ones by throwing flowers into the ocean. It was impossible not to be moved by their anguish.
On my fifth day, I returned to site and was surprised to find it empty. The coast guard commander called an emergency briefing and announced that the recovery of the bodies had been halted because there were toxic pesticides on board the sunken ship, which threatened the well-being of the divers. As soon as that news hit Manila I got a call from the bureau, instructing me to stay off the water.
I left later that day with the ferry still in its capsized position and hundreds of unrecovered bodies still floating beneath it.
It is deperately sad that yet another disaster in the Philippines should have claimed so many lives and I really struggle to imagine what the victims’ relatives must be going through.