Man who worked on cruise ship that sank in 1992: 'Their screams still haunt me'

As he followed news of the Korean Sewol ferry tragedy, a shiver ran down his spine.

It sounded all too familiar.

Speaking about the Sewol tragedy, Mr Collin Ng, 52, said: "This incident really affects me because a lot more people died this time. It hurts a lot because they were just young kids."

It also hurts because it reminded him of his own experience.

In 1992, while working on a ship, Mr Ng was caught up in a tragedy that involved a ferry sinking and three passengers dying.

The freelance events manager said he has not been able to forget the chaos and panic as passengers tried desperately to stay alive.

Their screams still haunt him. Back then, he was an operations manager aboard the Royal Pacific.

It was originally named Empress of Australia and launched in 1964 as the largest passenger ferry built in the world.

The ship sailed the Sydney to Tasmania route and could carry up to 250 passengers, 91 cars, more than 100 containers and 16 trucks.

After 1986, it was sold and retrofitted as a cruise ship. Mr Ng said that the cruise industry was just starting to take off then.

It was the ship's maiden voyage as a cruise ship and it was a two-night "cruise to nowhere", passing places like Phuket, Malacca and Penang before heading back to Singapore.

There were 356 passengers and 179 crew on board. It was smooth sailing until around 2am, Aug 23, 1992, on the second night. The ship was passing the Strait of Malacca at that time.

SHIP HIT

Mr Ng, 52, said he had been in the restaurant having supper with his colleagues and friends when the ship was hit. Most of the passengers would have been asleep at that time.

"You could hear a 'bang' and the plates on the buffet table toppled down," said Mr Ng.

Later that night, he found out that it was Taiwanese trawler, Terfu 51, which had hit the ship.

After the impact, Mr Ng said he heard a deafening sound of metal scraping against metal as the fishing trawler pulled away from the ship.

"Our first instinct was to check what happened. We rushed to the open deck and saw a big gash on the side of the ship," Mr Ng said.

They stayed calm and waited for the announcement to come, but the only announcement made was in Greek, calling for the safety officer.

"We quickly put on our life jackets and went to the master station," said Mr Ng.

He remembered the safety officer going to the lower decks to check what had happened. When he came up, he immediately told everyone to put on life jackets.

Mr Ng said: "You couldn't imagine that the ship would sink."

Unfortunately, the PA system was not working.

Mr Ng said: "We went knocking on every cabin door and ushering people to the master station. It was very chaotic, but still manageable."

By then, the ship was listing quite badly and the people on the lower decks even found water in their cabins.

At an inquiry later, the chief engineer said the engine room was flooded within minutes.

The senior officers and crew were directing people onto life boats and rescue vessels, but there was not enough time for everyone to get on.

By then, only 15 minutes had passed.

Mr Ng was on the last rescue boat that was sent out, believing that he was one of the last few people on the ship.

Only when the rescue boat was moving away from the ship did he realise that about 40 other people on the ship had not made it onto the lifeboats.

Meanwhile, the ship was going down fast and the lights went out.

Mr Ng remembered hearing people screaming for help as the ship sank. The screams have not left him.

"I was worried, thinking whether the people on the ship perished."

RESCUED

Even though most of the passengers jumped into the cold, dark water, they were wearing life jackets and were picked up by rescue boats within minutes.

Of the 535 passengers, three were found dead and six were missing.

There were no mandatory safety briefings then, said Mr Ng.

He said the passengers had not been briefed on what to do in case of an emergency.

Now, his advice to anyone going on a ship is: "Your safety instinct must kick in when these kinds of things happen. You must know how to survive. Life jackets are important, but you must get out on deck."

Although he was not blamed for the accident, like Mr Ng, the Captain of the Royal Pacific struggled to recover from the tragedy.

In 2005, Captain Tasos Papayannis's nephew wrote to maritime website, ssmaritime.com, saying that his uncle, who died in 2005, never did get over the loss of human lives.

This incident really affects me because a lot more people died this time. It hurts a lot because they were just young kids.

- Mr Collin Ng, on the Sewol tragedy

jaslim@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 1 in The New Paper.Get The New Paper for more stories.

South Korean ferry sank with 450 passengers onboard

Captain's duty is to 'ensure safety of life'

A ship captain who abandons his sinking vessel without ensuring the safety of the passengers onboard is committing a crime, according to Singapore law.

Anyone found guilty of the offence under the Merchant Shipping Act can be fined and even jailed.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore told The New Paper that in an emergency at sea, the ship's master has a "statutory duty to ensure orderly evacuation and an equitable distribution of the passengers and crew on the lifeboats and other life-saving appliances".

Its spokesman said it was a "serious dereliction of his statutory duty" if the master abandons the ship without due regard for passengers' safety.

The role of a ship's captain has come into scrutiny after the recent Korean Sewol ferry tragedy, where the captain was among the first to get off the sinking vessel.

Most countries do not explicitly state that a captain must be the last person to leave a distressed ship, experts told The New York Times, giving captains the leeway to board lifeboats or nearby ships if they can better command an evacuation from there.

Dr Sam Bateman, an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told TNP that there's nothing to stop a captain saving his or her own life once there's nothing further to be done to save other lives.

But he added: "The captain's duty is to ensure the safety of the life of the passengers and the crew.

NEGLIGENCE

"If the captain has, by negligence, caused the loss of life, he could face manslaughter charges."

Mr Teh Kong Leong, who was the Director of Marine under the Ministry of Communications at the time of the Royal Pacific Ferry sinking in 1992, said international regulations concerning passenger ships have been strengthened over the years.

"It's mainly as a result of other incidents and accidents," said Mr Teh, who is now a lecturer at NTU's Maritime Studies.

He said in such emergency situations, passengers should listen to the instructions of the crew.

He said: "If you are faced with a situation where you think your life is in danger, then you will very likely want to do something to save yourself.

"However, taking things into your own hands can result in chaos and panic, which will make matters worse."

Although a life jacket would help if passengers get into the water, Mr Teh said getting onto a life raft of a lifeboat would increase a person's chances of survival.

Should there be an order to evacuate, Mr Teh said passengers should go to their emergency stations and wait for further instructions.

But he added: "In general, staying outside would be better than in your cabins, unless the conditions outside are very bad and dangerous. For example, strong winds and heavy seas."

What to do in an emergency on board a ship

- Remain calm.

- Put on your life jacket.

- Follow the safety instructions given by the ship's staff.

- If you are alone or in doubt, proceed directly to the assigned emergency assembly station.

Source: Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore