Early this April, a Filipino received the highest honor from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for his bravery, leadership, and determination in ensuring the safety of 62 lives onboard the sinking of M/V Siargao Princess in Sibunga, Cebu in November 2019.
Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) officer, Ensign Ralph O. Barajan formally received the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea in a virtual awards ceremony streamed live on the YouTube channel of the United Nations specialized agency. Two pilots from Brazil, whose decisiveness and ship handling expertise helped avoid a major maritime oil spill, also received commendation.
Barajan and the Sau Paulo pilots were selected among worthy nominees from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, France, Mexico, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Russia, and Vietnam. They were nominated by their respective countries and evaluated by IMO’s assessment panel made up of non-government organizations. The top awardees received certificates and medals for the recognition.
Seventh of November
The sea mishap happened November 7, 2019. And while it’s been more than a year ago, the details remain clear in the mind of then-Seaman First Class (SN1) Barajan. “Hindi natin makakalimutan yun,” he says when ANCX asked him to recall the events leading to the tragedy.
The 31-year-old PCG officer remembers that day to be bright and sunny—no weather disturbance seemed to suggest itself on the horizon. He knew this because he was monitoring weather updates at that time. “Normal, blue skies, hindi maalon,” he recalls. He was then assigned at the coast guard station in Southern Cebu, but would go back and forth to his home in Bohol.
Since he got an urgent call to report for work, Barajan took the first available trip at the Catagbacan Port in Bohol. He was catching some sleep during the trip when a commotion startled him. Their ship was being battered by strong waves.
Soon enough, the vessel started taking in water, so Barajan right away called the coast guard stations and substations near the area to alert them that their ship, the M/V Siargao Princess, was in distress. He also called his station commander at the PCG. “At that time, alam ko nang lulubog kami. Nakita ko na doon na talaga papunta,” he recalls.
Barajan observed the waves were getting stronger so he decided to talk to the passengers to calm them down. He told them he works with the PCG and that he had informed the stations about their situation. The coast guard officer instructed the passengers in front to move to the back, to refrain from making any movements so they don’t get outbalanced, and to wear their life jackets. Realizing the kid passengers had no life jackets, he looked for the crew on the upper deck to ask them to provide the young ones with the flotation device.
There was chaos in the upper deck. “Nakita ko [ang crew] sa taas, equally confused as the passengers. Nag-aaway-away na sila, yung iba umiiyak, di alam ang gagawin,” he remembers.
Barajan spoke to the captain who informed him he had already made the distress call and had advised the owner of the shipping line what was happening. The captain said rescue was on the way so the seaman went down with the crew to provide life jackets to the children. That was when it occurred to Barajan it was already flooding inside the vessel.
Barajan approached the captain again and advised him to make an “abandon ship” order. The captain initially disagreed saying rescue was already coming. He realized rescuers were coming from the northern part of Cebu and the ship was on the southern part—it would take a while for the rescue team to reach them. “Baka kako wala ngchance para umalis sa cabins ang mga pasahero dun sa baba,” he remembers telling the captain. In the end, he was able to convince the captain to signal the abandon ship alarm.
Trained to do water search and rescue operations, Barajan went down to explain to passengers the captain was instructing everyone to abandon ship, and told them to not panic. Barajan, a registered nurse, noted that many of the passengers were elderly; they were on a tour going to the miraculous Simala Shrine in Cebu. There were a few young children, too, with their parents. “Nandun ako sa dulo, sa exit, sabi ko walang magdadala ng bag. Ako ang taga-harang pag may dala,” he says.
“Nahirapan ako sa mga matatanda kasi ayaw nilang magsitalon, so I really had to push them. Otherwise maiiwan sila sa loob. I made sure na walang naiwan [sa ship] bago ako tumalon,” says Barajan.
He remembers the exact moment he jumped off the ship. “May kasama akong matanda. Sabi ko, ‘Lola, talon na tayo.’ Ayaw talaga. Kailangan ko syang piliting tumalon. Nung nakatalon na kami, when I looked back, wala na ang barko. Ganoon kabilis.” He heard the gurgling sound as the ship receded towards the ocean.
The captain had by that time released the life rafts, so what Barajan did was instruct the crew to take charge of each life raft and make sure they would stay afloat. He also requested the captain and the crew to help him tie the life rafts together, so all the passengers would remain together in one area.
While awaiting their rescuers, he made sure all the kids and the sick elderly are on top of the life raft. “So palipat-lipat ako from one life raft to another, checking on them, kinakausap sila. Kasi nanghihina na,” he says.
The whole ordeal at sea took about three hours. “Nahirapan ang rescuers na hanapin kami, dahil wala na kami dun sa location na binato ng barko before it sank. Malayo na kami. Naka-respond agad ang coastguard pero sobrang layo na namin dahil sa lakas ng alon. Kahit anong tali nga namin naghihiwa-hiwalay talaga ang mga life raft,” he says.
No lives lost
Emotions ran high while they were being lashed by the strong waves—especially parents who were separated from their young children. “Merong nagmamakaawa. ‘Ikaw na ang bahala sa anak ko.’ Naghahabilin na. Yun ang pinakamahirap sa akin nung nandun kami sa tubig,” he remembers.
What saved them, says Barajan, was everyone’s cooperation when he delegated the tasks. “Nagpasalamat din ako sa mga crew kasi kahit na may lapses sila, eventually nagtulungan kami nung nandun na kami sa dagat—sa pagtali, pag collect ng mga tao. It’s not like ako lang ang gumawa ng lahat,” he says. There were also passengers who stepped up. He remembers a fellow seaman who helped in keeping everyone safe while awaiting rescue.
What was running through his head at that time? “Gusto kong mabuhay nun e. So nung nakita kong confused na ang lahat, tinayuan ko na lang na maglider-lideran nung time na yun,” he answers. “I know na pag di ko ginawa yun, madami ang mamamatay sa harap ko. Yun ang di ko ma-imagine—pag may namatay sa harap ko taposhelpless ako, wala akong magawa. Ayoko ng ganun kasi nurse ako e, so nakita ko na yung may taong namamatay tapos wala akong magawa. So iniisip ko, hangga’t nandun ako, dapat walang mamatay sa harap ko.”
Through his bravery and determination, not a single soul died from that catastrophe. There were elderly individuals who had to be brought to the hospital, and crew who suffered from exhaustion. One lost consciousness along the way. But in the end everyone was saved.
The IMO Awardee admits it took a while for him to move on from that incident. It helped that he had to retell the story to the local media and LGUS many times—the telling became therapeutic for him.
Since the pandemic, Barajan has been assigned to take on new missions. He was initially part of the task group quarantine facility, taking care of returning overseas Filipinos. He was later on moved to the task group RT-PCR that conducts Covid testing.
PCG officer Barajan says the IMO award will remind him to always do his job exceptionally well. “Iniisip kong mas kailangan kong galingan,” says the coast guard officer, “kailangan kong pag-igihan kasi mas maraming naniniwala sa akin ngayon.”