Monday, April 21, 2014
When I read the news on the recent sinking of a Korean ferry boat, it inevitably jostled my memory back to Royal Pacific which sank on 23 August 1992 near Port Dickson and I was one of the survivors too. Sadly, there are some similarities between the two ill-fated vessels. It happened more than two decades ago but nobody seems to have remembered that fateful incident now.
I was the operations manager of Starlight Cruises which was the owner and ship manager of Royal Pacific, a 13,000 gross tonnage passenger vessel which can carry up to 600 passengers. It was a Greek-owned vessel and flying on Bahamas flag. It was a ferry which was just converted to a full passenger vessel slated to ply in the Straits of Malacca and home-ported in Singapore. Cruising was at its infancy stage in the late 80s going into the early 90s in Singapore and the region.
It was our maiden voyage where we were supposed to do a 2-night "cruise-to-nowhere" along Straits of Malacca and many travel agents were on a familiarisation cruise with us. There were 535 passengers and crew on board. It was on our second night while on the way back to Singapore that a Taiwanese fishing trawler hit us on the port side. It was in the wee hour at about 0200 hrs when it happened.
The ship started to list on one side. As it was a "ferry-convert-passenger vessel", water quickly gushed in to fill up vacant space within the vessel. The automatic shutting doors that were supposed to shut out water from flowing into other compartments failed to work and that, unfortunately quickened the sinking.
There was only one announcement made by the Captain. It was not an announcement to evacuate but to summon for the Chief Safety Officer made in Greek language and nobody could have thought the ship would sink. I did not think so either, certainly not in my wildest dream. However, many did don their life jackets when they realised the ship was listing badly and was waiting at the lobby area for further instructions from the bridge but alas, it never came. I understand later that the announcement system also went kaput when the call for evacuation was to be made. Once the ship was listed badly on one side, there was no way one can still remain in the cabin. Many managed to rush out from their cabins and were quickly ushered to the evacuation stations where lifeboats were ready to be released. Without doubt, there was confusion too. Some crew members were not even trained for emergency evacuation and obviously, they were more panicky than passengers. The captain was among the first to be rescued. Just like his Korean counterpart, he was a relief captain too.
From the time the ship was hit to the time it sank near Port Dickson, it took just under two hours. With 535 passengers and crew onboard, it was a miracle that only three bodies were found and six are still missing to this day. In the midst of uncertainty and confusion, how did that incident measure up to the recent Korean ferry?
When the captain of the fateful Korean ferry was interviewed recently, he said that he delayed the decision to evacuate citing among others, rescue vessels had not arrived yet and weather was bad. It was definitely a bad call. For that bad decision, more than 300 innocent lives perished. I truly believe more lives could have been saved had the call to evacuate was made sooner. My heart goes out to the families of the victims and I hope they will recover from their griefs soon.