By Lakhram Bhagirat and Alva Solomon
Four men are still missing after a coastal cargo ship MV Crissan-V sank late Wednesday night in the vicinity of Moruca River mouth, and authorities indicated that a 16-hour delay before they were alerted of the incident affected the response.
Missing are Elbert Jack Jr, 24, of Albouystown, the captain and owner of the vessel John Vansluytman, of Ruby, East Bank Essequibo , Julian Garraway of the Pomeroon River and Charles Fredericks, who were part of the nine-member crew of the ship. The ship, which was being used as a tug at the time of the mishap, was said to have failed inspection exercises undertaken by the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD) in 2008. A survivor has said the ship was operating with its hull and other surfaces covered with cement while its body was also plastered with “Euroband” to prevent seepages.
The ship went down in the vicinity of Iron Punt off the mouth of the Moruca River around 10 pm on Wednesday. Five members of the crew were rescued afterward. The maritime authorities will today launch another coordinated search off the Coast of the Pomeroon River for the four missing men.
Among the rescued crewmembers was Michael Fredericks, who later recounted to relatives that the vessel was pulling a barge laden with mining equipment, including an excavator and a dredge, when it developed a leak in the vicinity of the Moruca Mouth and Waini River. A relative of Fredericks told Stabroek News that the man recounted that the crew told the Captain to turn the vessel around but he refused, saying it was a minor problem and that he would pump the water out.
As the journey progressed, the waves became rough and the water pump later failed. At this point, the crew attempted to board the pontoon to retrieve another pump but as the boat rolled alongside the barge, the ship slammed into it and its sides were ripped apart.
With the boat sinking rapidly, the men desperately attempted to board the barge. It was at this point that the remaining crew members realized that the four men were missing. With no life jackets or other survival equipment, the men stayed aboard the barge all night and the following morning built a make-shift sail in order to move the barge into the Pomeroon River. They were subsequently rescued by fishing boat MV Shirley.
Transport Minister Robeson Benn, flanked by top MARAD officials, told the media last evening at the Stabroek Boat House that the department along with the Coastguard and the relatives of the missing men will undertake search and rescue activities off the Coast of the Pomeroon today.
The teams will comb the area southwards and north of the Iron Punt area, where the ship sank. Yesterday morning, Egbert Jack Sr travelled with an aircraft from Roraima Airways to the area to carry out an aerial search for the vessel but nothing was uncovered. According to Benn, a GDF Cessna aircraft and another combed the area during the afternoon but to no avail.
The salvaged barge was towed to the Pomeroon River yesterday afternoon. Benn said that he would be “enthralled” if any of the missing men is found alive. He said that some 16 hours later—sometime after lunch on Thursday—the Lighthouse received word of the incident, which set in motion search and rescue efforts. “We sent a boat from Moruca and started to look for the men and one of the issues is that it was some 16 hours after the incident that the maritime people knew what had happened,” he explained.
Benn said based on accounts received, around midday on Wednesday the vessel departed the Rodden Rust area along the Essequibo River in the vicinity of Parika destined for Port Kaituma in the North West District. “It was a ship doing a tug’s work,” he added.
He said that around 5pm that day, the ship began to experience mechanical problems and stopped in the vicinity of Dauntless, located on Leguan, before continuing northwards on its journey. The pumps on board the vessel, he noted, were creating problems for the crew.
Between 9pm and 10pm, the situation on board deteriorated while the weather conditions at the time added insult to injury. Benn said that during this time, based on the accounts given by the vessel’s 18-year old engineer who was among those rescued, a crew member contacted the owner of the cargo by satellite phone and informed that the vessel was going down.
He said the engineer recounted that on Thursday the survivors managed to pull themselves to the barge via a rope to escape the seas and the stranded crewmen tried to flag down fishing boats in the vicinity of the barge. However, the survivor noted that given the recent pirate attacks in the area, the fishermen may have decided against venturing g close to the scene.
According to Stephen Thomas of MARAD, the vessel in question has had a chequered history. In 2008, he said, it had failed an inspection exercise. At the time, the vessel was operating within the county of Demerara, but the owners later moved it to the Essequibo Coast.
“Two things are to be noted here: the vessel was equipped with radios and a satellite phone but the captain did not think of getting to the radio to alert anyone, neither did the person (owner of the cargo) who knew what was happening,” Benn said, while noting that the required safety procedures, including the use of safety rings (life buoys) as well as life jackets were not utilised by the crew. “They had six rings but we found that they only used one,” he added.
He added that the authorities will be safety issues as well as the communication and other requirements for operating at sea during coming engagements with boat owners. He also made an appeal to the wives of seamen. “…because when things like these happen, it’s the women who come to us with little children and they are left to be the bread-winners ,” he said, “The women and children need to urge them to have their life jackets at all times.”
Director of MARAD Claudette Rogers, meanwhile, called on seamen and boat owners to ensure that all safety procedures are utilised while on the waters.
Meantime, Benn said that the GDF Coastgaurd will be setting up a unit in the Pomeroon area this month to bolster their presence at pivotal points along the coastland. He said that the move is part of a wider plan to improve the effectiveness of the response efforts to distress calls and other activities. (Additional reporting by Marcelle Thomas).