It happened more than a year ago but the sight of helpless children and terrified elders praying for mercy while being battered by big waves for hours at sea is still fresh from the memory of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Probationary Ensign Ralph Barajan.
Barajan was among the 62 passengers of the MV Siargao Princess which was supposed to take them from Bohol to Cebu on November 7, 2019. But the fastcraft did not make it to the intended destination and instead stalled in the middle of the sea.
It was actually the commotion and loud cries from the other passengers who awakened him from a deep slumber. When he woke up, he suddenly realized the reason why–there were big waves rocking the seacraft and the seawater had actually begun to flood it.
“Nakatulog ako noon eh, nagising ako nung may nagsisigawan na saka medyo maalon so nagtataka ako bigla kasing umalon ng husto and then nagstart na pumasok na yung tubig sa harapan ng fast craft (I fell asleep and I woke up with the sound of passengers screaming and then I was surprised when huge waves started to battered the fast craft. The seawater also started to enter in front of the fast craft),” Barajan told the Manila Bulletin.
He said that it was fine weather when they left the port of Loon town in Bohol and it was actually the reason why he was comfortable inside the fastcraft.
The moment that he saw the situation when he woke up, his survival training and instinct as a Coast Guard officer appeared to have guided Barajan on what to do in the next hours–especially that there were no signs of help when he surveyed the sea.
Order out of disorder
With no crew members to assist them, Barajan took the initiative to calm them down and gradually guide them on what to do.
The first task, he said, was to ensure that the ship was balanced as he was certain that panic and confusion among the passengers was one of the aggravating circumstances for a seacraft to sink.
During that time, he said most of the passengers were gathered in front of the ship so he explained to him why some of them have to go at the back and other parts of the fastcraft.
He also started to distribute life jackets for the passengers and made sure that all of them were safe. Barajan also called the Coast Guard substations near the area to ask for help and to inform them that the vessel was in distress.
“Nagtaka ako bakit walang crew, umakyat ako sa taas and then I saw them na confuse rin sila nag-aaway sila and then hindi nila alam yung gagawin. Yung iba umiiyak, yung iba nagagalit, and then I looked for the captain sabi ko kailangan na natin na mag-abandon ship. (I was confused why there were no crew members to help that time, so I climbed to the deck and then I saw them that they were also confused. They were fighting and some did not know what to do. The other crews were crying, while some were angry and then I looked for the captain and I told him that we needed to abandon the ship),” Barajan narrated.
“Naka-close kasi yung fast craft so dun nagtalo na kami na dapat i-abandon na yung ship and later on naconvince ko siya na dapat i-abandon na (We argued that the ship should be abandoned and later on I convinced him),” he added.
It was a decision that needed to be immediately carried out as Barajan himself sensed that the fastcraft would sink.
He then assisted the passengers towards the exit and guided them to jump the waters with life rafts waiting for them. Before he jumped off, he made sure that no one was left in the vessel.
He was the last person to jump off the vessel.
It was an excellent decision because a few minutes after, the ship was out of sight.
“Pagtalon ko, pagtalikod ko wala na yung barko ganun kabilis yung mga pangyayari lumubog talaga siya nung nandun na kami sa dagat. Magulo eh iyakan, yung mga bata na separate na sa mga matatanda tapos yung alon malalaki na talaga so ang ginawa ko na lang is nilangoy ko na lang yung mga wala sa life raft tapos dinadala ko sila sa life raft para kaming nag-group together (After I jumped, when I turned around, the ship was gone. That was how quickly the events happened. It really sank when we were at sea. It was chaotic, children are crying because they are separated from the adults, and then the waves were really huge, so what I did was I just swam the passengers that were too far away from the life raft, then I took them to the life raft so that we were all together),” the Coast Guard officer shared.
In the middle of the sea
As all of them escaped death when they got out of the ship, the next challenge is how to survive in the middle of the sea while waiting for help.
Amid the towering waves, Barajan and the rest of the ship’s passengers and crew struggled for almost three hours at the sea. He said he had to keep some of them busy in order to make them realize that they had to work together for survival.
Barajan swam around to carry and lift passengers who fainted and secured them to the life rafts. He also instructed the male passengers to secure the life rafts tight to each other.
“Habang nag-iintay kami kinakausap ko sila pinapalakas ko loob. From time to time kinakausap ko sila parating na yung rescue (While we waited, I talked to them and encouraged them. From time to time I reassured them that the rescue was coming),” he said.
When the rescuers came, Barajan felt relieved and cannot contain the happiness that he felt when the Coast Guard came to save them. Fortunately, they were also all found in the same area with all the passengers secured from the life rafts.
“Iba talaga yung tuwa na parang naging slow yung motion lahat parang nandito na yung tulong kasi nararamdaman namin na hindi kami tatagal paghindi sila dumating. Walang nasawi awa ng Diyos lahat kami nakasurvive okay naman po lahat narescue ni Coast Guard ng matiwasay (It was a genuine happiness and everything became in slow motion because the rescuers were here as they almost felt that they won’t last long. We were all saved through God’s mercy, we all survived. We were all rescued by the Coast Guard safely),” Barajan shared.
Almost two years after the incident, Barajan was given the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea in Pasay City last Feb. 24.
The IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea is an annual international recognition for individuals who performed “acts of exceptional bravery, risking their own lives to ensure the safety of life at sea, and to prevent or mitigate marine environmental damages.”
“Masaya ako na na-recognize at the same time mas naging aware tayo of the expectations after all the recognitions (I am happy to be recognized and at the same time we became more aware of the expectations after all the recognitions),” Barajan said.
Barajan dedicated his award to all the MV Siargao Princess survivors and recognized their bravery during the incident.
“Hindi lang ako matapang that time eh sila rin. Kahit gaano kaalon madala man sila ng alon kakapit pa rin sila, maniniwala pa rin sila sa akin ‘yun yung maganda dun eh yung naniwala sila kaya walang nadisgrasya kaya para sa akin matapang talaga yung mga kasamahan ko that time (I was not the only brave during that time, they were also too. No matter how rough the waves carry them, they will still cling to the life rafts, they will still believe in me and that was the good thing there, they believed to me so no one got injured, my co-survivors were really brave at that time),” he said.
Serving the people
Hailing from Bohol, Barajan was mainly inspired by his father who was a former rescue diver and member of PCG Special Operations group. He was a nurse by profession prior to entering the Coast Guard in 2012.
Barajan, currently a nurse officer assigned in the PCG’s Task Group RT-PCR, expressed that the country’s biggest challenge right now is the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Ang pinaka-challenge kasi ngayon itong COVID-19 so walang nag-e-expect nito eh. Pinaka-challenge dito is yung malayo ka sa pamilya but you chose to serve other people. May trabaho ka na sinumpaan and ang natutunan ko lang dito is yung hirap ng isang uniformed personnel para sa serbisyo ay hindi basta basta marami kang kailangan i-sacrifice kahit yung sarili mong comfort, sarili mong pamilya kasi may sinumpaan kang tungkulin (The biggest challenge that we are facing right now is the COVID-19 because no one is expecting it. The biggest challenge here is that you are away from your family but you choose to serve other people. You have a sworn duty and I learned the hardships of being uniformed personnel for service, you have to sacrifice a lot even your own comfort, your own family because you have a sworn duty),” he said.
The Boholano nurse also urged Filipinos to unite to fight the challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Bayanihan tayo ngayon sana isang galaw tayo para masurvive natin itong challenge na ito ng pandemic kasi paghindi watak watak tayo mahihirapan tayo matalo isa lang talaga yung kalaban eh COVID so dapat magkaisa tulad nung mga kasamahan kong survivors kung hindi kami nagkaisa di kami mabubuhay lahat eh (Let’s unite to survive this challenge of the pandemic because if we don’t help each other it will be difficult for us to defeat COVID-19. We must unite like my fellow survivors, if we don’t unite we will not all survive),” Barajan said.
“Nagpapasalamat ako sa Coast Guard sa pagkakataon maglingkod kasi hindi lahat ng tao sa lifetime nila nabigyan ng pagkakataon makapagserbisyo and hindi ako nagsisi na ito yung pinili kong propesyon (I am grateful to the Coast Guard for the opportunity to serve because not everyone in their lifetime has been given the opportunity to serve and I do not regret that I chose this profession),” he added.