One year ago, some 377 fishermen from General Santos City were caught in the middle of a perfect storm.

Nobody knew of their fate until well into the late afternoon of the following day, December 5, when a worried Dominic Salazar said only three crew members of a light boat owned by their company, Thidcor Fishing, had been found alive from a fishing fleet that consisted of one catcher vessel, a light boat and a ranger boat.

They were among the few fortunate ones to survive the 30-foot waves that battered their boats for more than 12 hours.  Their 24 other companions did not.  They were never found, and neither were 328 others.

Flowers for the missing fishermen. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

Of the 377 fishermen who were officially accounted for, only 17 survived and only eight of the missing were found.  The rest were long ago presumed already dead,when government rescuers gave up the vain search for their bodies two weeks after Pablo (international code name Bopha) hit landfall.

Such was the wrath of Super Typhoon Pablo that it brought death and devastation both inland and in the high seas.

On December 3, Pablo approached and battered eastern Mindanao like no other typhoon in its recorded history.  It hit landfall just after midnight.

Pablo left on its wake more than 1,043 dead, most of them in the provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Province.  The figure includes the fishermen for General Santos City and Sarangani.

Quiet remembrance

General Santos City Mayor Ronnel Rivera said the story of the brave fishermen who lost their lives in the storm is not lost in memory.  Without them and the more than 25,000 directly employed in the fishing industry, this city would not have earned its moniker as the Tuna Capital of the Philippines.

But a year after their tragic agony and death, no one seems to remember them anymore. Even the promised marker to honor their memory has been lost in the conversation among city officials.

The city council, many of its members not yet elected when the tragedy happened, does not seem to care despite expressing interest in honoring the dead and missing fishermen as soon as they were elected into office in May.

The previous city council was even worse. When then city councillor Rivera introduced a resolution to erect a monument in honor of the dead, he was immediately met with skepticism from the then majority block identified with former city mayor Darlene Antonino Custodio.

Custodio herself promised to seriously consider the proposal.  It apparently got lost along the way as nothing ever came from city hall.

Neither has the Socsksargen Association of Fishing and Allied Industry seriously pursued its commitment to set aside funds for the construction of such a memorial.

Fishing boat owners seem to have moved on having settled most of their promised obligations to the families of the victims of Pablo – some for a mere P50,000 (US$1,143) cash assistance.

Maybe the even more devastating Yolanda has buried the memory of Pablo.

Still mourning

But for the wives and children, mothers and fathers who were left behind, the memory and the wounds are as fresh as they were a year ago.

Angelina Nemeño, whose husband Cornelio as among those whose body was never found, said coming to terms with her and children’s loss is a reality she already embraced.  But the pitiful assistance they got from the owner of the fishing boat is still too painful to ignore.

Clutching a bouquet of red roses, Angelina Nemeño is hoping for more compassion from the fishing company where her husband worked for more than 26 years. Pic: Edwin Espejo.

Cornelio, then 51, was the piyado – boat skipper – of F/B Queen Mary owned by Thidcor Fishing.

All she got from Thidcor was P70,000 (US$1,600) despite the 26 years of service her husband had given the company.  She also received P20,000 burial assistance and another P14,000 in death benefits from the Social Security System.  Angelina says she will begin receiving pension from the SSS in January 2014 – P1,000 (US$23) a month.

Like Angelina, Alma Andaya also received P50,000 in cash assistance from RA Fishing Industry following the death of her husband Rolan Dampog.  

All families of the victims – the deadd and the few who survived – also got P10,000 each from the local government and grocery items.

But after that they were left to fend for their own as the fishing companies were insistent that without the employer-employee relationship, they are not required to give beyond that assistance they have agreed to offer – P50,000.

Sadly, not one of those interviewed said their husbands and sons left insurance policies for such an eventuality.

Sr. Susan Bolaño, who is helping organize the families of the victims to secure justice, said they have been preparing legal actions against the fishing companies the missing fishermen worked for prior their presumed deaths.  Some have given up hope and chose to suffer in silence.

They chose December 4 as the day to remember their departed – the tombmarkers and epitaphs etched in the blue waters.

In a heart-rending commemoration of the tragic fate of their loved ones, they offered flowers to the sea – hoping the memory of their dead will not be lost in the city made famous by its brave fishermen.