Monday, April 21, 2014

Sinking Vessel

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.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Growing Up With Black and White Television

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was considered a luxury to watch television, let alone owning one.  Going back sometime in the mid to late 60s in MacPherson estate where we used to live, I still remember only one household owned a precious black & white television then.  Ours was a typical one-roomer type of flat that faced each other along the common corridor.  Life was tough for all but it was a close community.

Our neighbour was kind to let us watch the TV program together.  Most of our doors were never closed and as kids, we used to play and run along the common corridor.  It was noisy but nobody complained.  When it was time to watch, our neighbour would open their door and welcomed us all in.  The whole hall would be filled with children and adults and everyone was so glued to the television set.  One of the most popular TV programs was the Cantonese show from Hong Kong.  I can still fondly remember characters like Chan Poh Choo, Siew Fong Fong, Lie Kei, Sum Tin Har and Fung Po Po, among others.  Even Cantonese opera show was popular too.  There was this Lam Ka Sing who was a female but played mainly male role.  Chan Poh Choo was my favourite as a child and still is (sheepishly).  The hall was small but it was packed to the brink.  Everyone of us really enjoyed watching and laughing together.          

Few years later, my family managed to scrimp and we finally became the proud owner of a 24-inch black and white television.  We were one of the few in our neighbourhood to own a television.  Like what our neighbour used to do, we opened our house door for our neighbours whenever a program was to be aired.

Gradually, many household could own a television and watching as one small community slowly faded off.  There was no common antenna to plug in and each household was required to erect own antenna out from their kitchen balcony.  Soon, the entire block would have antennas sticking out from the balconies.  Ours was on the second floor of a six-storey block.  Sometimes, we could not get clear vision.  Someone could have dropped something from above and moved our antenna which was quite common.  We had to use a bamboo stick to poke at their antenna while one person will standby inside to shout back once the vision was clearer.  Recalling back, it was quite comical.

Thank you black and white television for all the fond memories during my growing up years.


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Left High & Dry In Paris

It happened more than three years ago.  It was a sponsored trip to run a marathon in Medoc in France by the French Tourism Singapore Office.  I truly enjoyed the marathon.  After the marathon in Medoc, I planned to visit Paris for few days before returning home.  Anyway, it was my first trip to France and I was all excited about it.

I took a domestic flight from Bordeaux to Paris and I remember I arrived at about 1500 hrs.  I have heard too much about Paris and I was very wary of strangers.  There were few who tried to come near me on the pretext of helping me at the airport arrival hall and I ignored them completely.  One of my mistakes was to put almost everything in my haversack.  My laptop, my passport, my wallet comprising my cash and credit cards and handphone were among those important items squeezed into my haversack.  I had a large suitcase with me too.  I thought I will immediately re-organise my things once I have reached hotel and yes, it was a big mistake from start and I was too careless.

I walked to the airport train station which is located at the basement floor.  On my way down, I met an elderly Chinese couple and I offered to carry one of their bags.  Upon boarding the train, the wife then sat opposite me while her husband sat at other end guarding their own luggage.  I started to chat with the wife who are from Taiwan.  The train started to move off and we continued our conversation away.  The second stop was still within the airport terminal and someone was exiting out.  I heard coins were dropped and that man started to look for the coins around the area I sat.  As a good Samaritan, I helped him to look for the coins.  When I stoop down, I felt "something" like a breeze passing me.  When I realised my haversack was not around, I turned back to the man who by then already exited out of the train.  Within a second or so, the train door started to close up.  I realised too late my haversack was gone for good.  I immediately looked for alarm inside the cabins but there was none at all.  I cannot even communicate with the driver.  I was completely shut off.  An off duty airport staff who saw everything told me that I need to make a police report at the next station but it was half an hour by train ride.  It was a hellish half an hour train ride in my life.  I was beyond anger and in my mind, all I wanted to do was to get to the police station and to our embassy as soon as possible.  The off duty airport staff was nice enough to escort me to the police station.  He even stayed back to help me with translation just in case.

The policeman tried to call our Singapore embassy but it did not go through despite few attempts.  He then passed me the embassy address and advised me how to take the train to reach there.  If I counted correctly, I asked more than 10 passers-by for the exact direction to our embassy but nobody can tell me.  Many simply looked puzzled when shown the address.  I was simply going around and around the place.  It was very frustrating as the time was clicking away.  Finally, I sought help from a staff from another embassy who pointed me to the right direction which was just very nearby.  It puzzled me why nobody can tell me the location when the place is actually very nearby. I was excited when I saw our Singapore crest at the gate and I immediately pressed the bell.  Nobody came to the gate and I just waited.  I then saw a notice on the gate and it mentioned that the Singapore embassy has moved out more than a year ago.  My heart sunk immediately.  

A French lady pointed to me the direction to our embassy and she said it is not too far away but in her smattering English.  I did not want to waste much time, proceeded to walk to the pointed direction.  I was pushing my big suitcase along and I had only Euro80 on me.  I just walked and walked.  Finally, I reached a row of shop houses and sought someone at the motor shop for help.  A young man was sympathetic to my plight and he goggled the location for me.  He had the location printed out and then, told me how to walk there.  When I reached our embassy, it was already past 1900 hrs.  I touched down in Paris at 1500 hrs and after all the trouble, I was at the doorstep of our embassy way past office hours.  I did not want to leave the place.  I waited outside hoping someone would walk out of the embassy.  I heaved a big sigh of relief when I saw a familiar local Singaporean face walking out of the gate.  She is an Indian lady who happened to stay back late.  I think she is a second secretary.  On hearing my plight, she went back to the embassy to email to the Singapore immigration for clearance to issue an urgent travel document for me.  Thanks for her timely email, I was able to get my travel document the following day.  I can only breathe easy when I finally boarded the Air France plane for home.  I do not think I will be making a another trip to Paris in the longest time or probably never at all.  I hate to say this everything was a bad dream the moment I touched down in Paris.