Numbering over 1.6 million, seafarers make up a maritime workforce which is largely invisible to the general public, despite transporting 90% of the world’s goods. When tragic incidents involving loss of life take place at sea, they may be reported in the media but the ordeal suffered by the crew involved is not always fully understood.
In October 2017, bulk carrier Emerald Star was transporting nickel ore from Indonesia to China with an Indian crew of 26 when it was struck by tragedy, resulting in the loss of 10 crew members. Those rescued from the sea had experienced a terrifying ordeal in which they feared for their lives.
The ship was off the Philippines when it suddenly began to roll heavily around midnight on the night of 12 October. A senior officer later reported that the crew had checked weather alerts the evening before and there were no concerning weather conditions forecast for the ship’s passage, so they had maintained their course.
The senior officer, who was on rest when the ship began to roll, woke up and wondered what was happening. At around 00:45, he received a call from the duty officer that the ship was listing towards the port side. He immediately changed his attire and went to the bridge where the master was assisting the duty officer and trying to make adjustments in the ship’s course.
Within 10 minutes, the vessel had listed heavily towards the port side. At 01:30, the main engines cut out and there was a complete blackout on the ship. The senior officer said: ‘We were totally blank and clueless as what to do’.
The master sounded the emergency alarm and instructed all crew to assemble with their life jackets. Some of the crew started to panic as the ship listed about 20 degrees to port side. Instead of waiting for further orders, some crew members jumped off the ship, fearing that they would go down with it if they stayed on board and hoping they could embark on the lifeboat when it was released. One crew member later said: ‘We did not even [have] time to launch lifeboat as [the] ship listed heavily on one side and we could do nothing’.
The ship listed to 45 degrees and water flooded the ship. Most of the crew, including the officers on the bridge, were washed away by the swell. They later said that they thought the end was near. The crew were initially submerged but returned to the surface thanks to their lifejackets to see that the ship had sunk. Some of the crew were covered in fuel oil and unable to open their eyes. One crew member later said: ‘We could not believe that such a big ship can sink in such a short notice. It was hardly 10 minutes that vessel listed to almost 90 degrees and then went down’.
The crew found themselves fighting for their lives amidst high swells in rain and total darkness. Some attempted to swim but others recalled their training and tried to conserve their energy. A few grouped together as they had been taught in their training and could see the lights on the life jackets of other crew members floating nearby, but these eventually faded as their wearers were carried away by the swell. Some crew members were able to climb into the ship’s lifeboat, which had inflated after the ship sank, but found that one of the compartments was damaged. The crew took turns to go inside while the others remained in the water, using grab lines to keep the raft floating.
The crew’s morale was lifted by the knowledge that there were two ships nearby which could potentially rescue them. When these ships reached the location of the incident but did not launch rescue operations, the senior crew members had to calm down the anxious juniors who were shouting and yelling for help. They advised the juniors that since it was dark and raining, the ships would likely launch rescue operations by the first light of the day.
At around 05:00 on 13 October, the vessels DENSA COBRA and SAMARINDA started to rescue the crew. Rescue was not easy and 16 of the crew were rescued in stages by the two vessels, but 10 remained missing. SAMARINDA stayed on the scene for one extra day to continue search operations but could not locate the missing crew. The crew reported that the Japanese Coast Guard joined the search and rescue around 14:00.
After the incident, ISWAN attended an aerial search with the Philippine Coast Guard, and worked with the Coast Guard and the Indian Government to keep the families of the missing seafarers informed about search and rescue efforts. The remains of one crew member were later found and the identity confirmed by DNA testing, but the rest remained missing. Throughout this ordeal, the families received moral support from ISWAN’s representative in India and were referred to our free, 24-hour helpline, SeafarerHelp, if they needed further emotional support.
Speaking to ISWAN afterwards, the surviving crew said they still prayed that their missing crewmates were located. They were having flashbacks of the incident and although most of them had recovered physically, they were still suffering from bad dreams. They appreciated the response from the shipping company, which had supported them well.
This tragic incident showed how, in times of crisis, moral support from others and strong leadership can be potentially lifesaving, as can effective training on responding in life-threatening situations. One of the crew members later said that in times of crisis, one becomes blank but if there is some moral support from fellow colleagues, it helps them to think more clearly. In this case, the junior ranks were more distressed and could not think of exactly what they should do at that time.
At the time of writing, the Indian Government has received a preliminary report on the cause of the incident from the flag state, Hong Kong, and the manning agency is working on presumed death certificates for the missing crew. Compensation will then be provided to the families according to the seafarers’ contracts. One family is reluctant to accept the death certificate, believing their loved one is still alive, and they are doing everything they can to convince authorities to restart search and rescue operations.