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Summer of sorrow

BY ILDA O. CAÑAL

April 22, 1981

On the midsummer night of Tuesday, April 22, 1980, a year ago to this day, the M/V Don Juan sank off Tablas Strait 13 minutes after it collided with the PNCC tanker M/V Tacloban. On board the passenger ship were over a thousand people, most of whom hailed from the province of Negros Occidental. Hundreds went down with the ship. Many more, in the ensuing panic and scramble for life boats and life vests, were either swept away by the tide or too seriously injured to survive.

The next day, the sun beat down upon the crowd gathered at the Banago Port in Bacolod City. The people had been there as early as 7 a.m. waiting for the arrival of the M/V Don Juan which was scheduled to dock at nine. Instead, a word of the sea tragedy arrived, and when the welcomers at the pier received the news, hysteria broke like sudden storm.

One eyewitness, an employee of the Negros Navigation Company, swore that he had never seen a more heart-rending scene, women were wailing, tearing their hair, shouting the names of their loved ones while calling on the saints and God in heaven. Some were on their knees, crawling, weak with apprehension, tears streaming down their cheeks. Men were pale-faced with shock, children, contaminated by the fear of sorrow of their eiders, also started crying. Had it been blood, not tears, which had been shed that fateful morning, the pavement would have turned red.

From that moment on, the whole province was glued to their radios and TV sets for news of the disaster. What mattered to the listeners were the names of the survivors, the dead and the missing. Community prayers, masses for the dead and novenas for the missing were offered. Private search teams were organized and dispatched to the nearby islands – private planes were chartered to comb the coast of Batangas for survivors.

When the “Princess of Negros”, carrying the first batch of 72 fatalities arrived in Iloilo, thousands of people (relatives, friends, and the merely curious) were on lead to witness the dead, piled on top of one another, being carried to the waiting funeral cars. The gloom of the cloudy skies could not match the gloom in the hearts and faces of the crowd.

After a few days, the dead who were not identified in Iloilo were brought to Bacolod. The port was so full of people that the roof of the waiting shed collapsed causing injury to some. Relatives flocked to the funeral parlors to find and claim their dead. But more often than not, identification was difficult because the bodies were bloated and the features were not distinguishable. The personal effects, scars and birthmarks were the means used for identification. Still, after three weeks, nine bodies (seven woman and two children) remained unidentified so that the Negros Navigation Company had to bury them in the City’s public cemetery.

On the scheduled date, the burial of the unclaimed dead, I happened to be at the office of the Negros Navigation Company. A woman came in crying while telling her story to the officials, requesting to withhold the burial of one of the unidentified cadavers because this was her sister, who was a midwife working in Manila. The corpse was easily recognizable because she was a survivor but was seriously injured and died after a few days hospitalization. It was only after a series of unanswered telegrams to her sister in Manila and a long distance call to her sister’s employer that the woman confirmed her fears. She had gone immediately to the funeral parlor. There she saw her dead sister — about to be buried alongside the other unknown dead.

Of the 26 towns and cities of Negros Occidental, only two were spared its share of fatalities. In Victorias, 32 were confirmed dead. That week was to be the town fiesta, hence the numerous town people who were coming home to attend the merrymaking. A teacher friend of mine from the place told me it was depressing to watch five or six funerals a day. Before the altar of the parish church, rows of coffins lined up, all waiting to be blessed.

Bacolod, the provincial capital, had the greatest toll of human lives.

City Mayor Jose “Digoy” Montalvo lost his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law. Ex Congressman “Armin” Gustilo suffered from the deaths of his wife, mother and daughter (who had just graduated “magna cum laude” in Business Management at the Assumption in Manila.) The daughter of the late Gov. Valeriano Gatuslao, Inday Linda, perished with her husband, Batchoy (scion of the Alunan family), only son and three daughters. Only the eldest daughter was spared because she was on a tour of the U.S. when the accident happened.

One of the city’s leading pediatricians, Dr. Eduardo Ledesma, his wife and two teenage children (a son and a daughter), a niece and a nephew were among the missing. The Arboleda clan of lawyers lost six in their family. The manager of the SSS Regional office, Atty. Godofredo Sison, lost four of his children (three daughters and one son) (two UST college students, one grader at St. Paul’s Makati). They were all coming to Negros for a vacation with their grandmother.

Beneldez Familliaran of the City Mayor’s Office, a survivor, lost his mother, a married sister (a balikbayan), and two grand nieces. A beauteous twenty six year-old and her daughter were trapped in their cabin. Mrs. Sajo’s husband and a young daughter who occupied the bunks which was the area directly hit in the impact, were pinned down by the bunks. Her 20-year-old niece, who was with them, was last seen still trying to pull out her young cousin when the ship eventually tilted and sank.

Just retired CFI Judge Francisco Ledesma of Cadiz City, his wife (newly retired public school teacher) and daughter (single. a practicing physician) all went down with the ship. According to a survivor who saw them, the Judge had a heart attack right after the accident. In his condition the wife and daughter could not leave him.

The Labayens of Silay City suffered the loss of their mother and three grandchildren. (Two of these are the only children of the daughter-in-law who was just widowed. This widow is all alone now).

The Hua Kong Chinese Drug Store owner lost his wife, eldest son of seventeen years, the second to the youngest and youngest daughters (aged seven and three). They were never found.

Of the well-off family from the south who were bringing with them a prized race horse, only the husband and a child survived. The wife and two children and the horse perished.

So many others perished. Those whose dead relatives were found had a better lot than those who had to bear the agony of the stark reality that the sea had become the coffin of their dead.

A week after the tragedy, the Bishop, Mons. Antonio Fortich, said Mass for the victims at the public plaza. The turnout of the city folk who flocked to participate in the sacrifice of the Mass was heartening. The solemn sadness of the occasion proved that indeed “each man’s grief is thy own” A period of mourning for the Christian community for two months was declared by the Bishop.

At the City Hall, the flag was at half mast.

Numerous stories about the tragedy have been told and retold. Each time these never failed to send shivers. Listeners would shake their heads and reflect deeply.

A public school teacher who had tied her two-year old son to her waist to make sure they won’t be separated no matter what happened was found dead still tied to her son. But when, at the funeral parlor, they were separated, the boy was claimed by another couple. At that instant, blood trickled from the eyes of the dead boy. The couple hesitated because they were afraid of this strange phenomenon. Just then, the teacher’s sister arrived to claim her and the boy.

A mother who was pulled out of the porthole by a pair of strong hands, had no more chance to save her two young daughters who were left inside the cabin crying for her. The water had suddenly covered the porthole. When, together with the other survivors, she was brought to Batangas, it was a long time before she could be persuaded to leave the shore where she had slumped inconsolable to wait for the lovely daughters she had left behind.

Provincial Sheriff Empestan is filled with grief every time he recounts how his wife had slipped from his hands while he was forcing her out of their cabin’s porthole. She already had her life vest on and so could not fit in the hole. His son, whom he had pushed out of the porthole earlier survived.

Our neighbor’s ten-year old boy doesn’t want to go anywhere without his father and has to sleep with him. The traumatic experience of losing his mother and younger sister had left him insecure. He and his father were in the men’s section while his mother and younger sister were in the women’s section. Somebody in the men’s section started battering the wide glass porthole and others joined him. When it was finally broken, the ship tilted and they had to jump. The father wanted to go to the women’s section but the door was locked. His son had insisted on jumping overboard and if the father had hesitated longer, they too would have not survived. According to the boy, minutes after he had jumped, he looked around. There was no more ship.

An adult male survivor cannot sleep nights thinking of the two children who clung to, his shoulders but whom he had to shake off instinctively in his effort to preserve his life.

A middle-aged school teacher held on for dear life to a male survivor who was obviously a fine swimmer. She lived but the injuries she suffered — lacerated mouth, black and bruised chest from the elbow kicks of the swimmer — were otherwise, unendurable.

A lady physician and her whole family who were all saved recalls how after two or three hours they were already safely boarded on the tanker, the survivors wept unabashedly and embraced one another. She hugged the woman next to her, whom she did not even know.

A survivor tells that he saw a pretty teenager slump to the floor after she was hit in the breadbasket by a husky male so the latter could divest her of her life jacket.

One survivor confessed with a heavy heart how he had to strangle another passenger so he could divest him of the life jacket which he needed for his wife. Ironically, his wife was not able to survive.

A matron had to use a floating dead body as a life raft all the while asking pardon from the dead man.

And the miracle of that baby who was found alive and well on top of bundles of Chiz Curls! Her mother was nowhere to be found.

One mother placed her three small children on top of three dead bodies after she was wearied to the bone trying to stay afloat with her children clinging to her.

A businessman’s son tells how a falling car hit his father who was starting to swim away from the ship.

A 22-year old crew member, who had survived, hugged my cousin very tightly for a long time when he met her in Dasmarinas. All the while his body was convulsed with sobs. Later, he told my cousin how he had managed to save several passengers by swimming underwater and tossing them up when they started sinking from sheer fatigue. Finally, when he went to the tanker, he saw a floating object alongside the vessel which he mistook for a doll. When he pulled it up it was the dead body of a six-month old baby. Now this crew member sits up all night and chain smokes. He refuses to lie down in the dark.

A member of a private search team told friends that they came across in the snore of an island, two bodies still hugging each other even in death, probably a husband and wife, already unrecognizable. A child’s headless body lay nearby.

Summer was finally over. The rains came, darkening the cloud of gloom that hung over the hearts of the relatives of the missing and the dead. The ones who are left behind will forever remember the events of that dreadful summer.

I know, because I, too, lost someone – my eldest son. He had lived for seventeen summers and that summer of 1980 was his last. His body was never found and if it were, perhaps we would not have been able to bear to see him thus.

Somehow, after enduring the seemingly endless days and nights of pain. the dazed mind which was forever crowded with memories, the futile desire to turn back the hands of time so the tragedy would never have happened. The dull ache of loss is still there.

I have found solace, though, in the sympathy and concern of relatives, friends, and even strangers. A younger brother who is abroad wrote me: “Be strong, still. The other children must see this in you.” A reader found time to wish us that in spite of our loss we may still find all the happiness that life’s blessings can muster. And the constant firm exhortation: Accept it — for it is God’s will.”

But my husband still waits at our gate in the late afternoons for our son to come home.*

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