August 26, 2009. Third Engineer Froilan Vallano only had an hour of sleep but he walked briskly towards the workshop where he would pass through to the ship’s engine room. He pondered on the hours of duty he’s had since 12 midnight and the fire fighting training that followed shortly after. As one of the ship’s Fire Team Leader, Froilan was glad to have a refresher training that day, all the while, ignoring the sheer exhaustion and the seemingly floating sensation he’s having for lack of sleep.
He felt the familiar shudder as the ship slowly moved away from the port of Slam, Norway, their cruise liner is now heading for Bergen. As Froilan reached the passage to the engine room, he noticed the first of many unusual things that day – the watertight door that is supposedly open at the time is already closed.
He turned to his left and casually pressed the green button to open the steel door. A rattle of metals unlocking, a hiss, and the door opened to accommodate access to the engine room. Seeing that the doors have already slid a meter from each other, Froilan slipped his body through and quickly pressed the red button for close. The mechanism, designed to respond to close swiftly to keep seawater from spilling over from one room to another, slammed shut.
Froilan, too exhausted to move just as fast, felt how the steel doors sandwiched him in half. He fumbled for the handheld radio that was unfortunately and unusually not in his waist belt. With a sudden burst of clarity, the young engineer reached for the green button and held his breath, aware that a mere expansion of his chest would cause more damage to his already cracking ribs.
“I heard a crack, then another, and another, and another until the steel doors finally opened and I fell on a heap. There was no one around and I had no means to contact my mates,” Froilan recalled in a fainting and wavering voice.
Thoughts of his dream of becoming a chief engineer passed through his mind, then a vision of his wife and three young children. It was the latter that fuelled Froilan to push himself up from the floor and struggled to climb the ladder up the control room, his vision blurring almost to black.
“Breathing by then was already so painful so I had to take it in small huffs,” he said in a quiet voice. The crewmembers and medical team of the cruise liner immediately attended to their injured mate with the captain ordering for the ship to return to port and arrange for a medical evacuation. As the ship headed back to Slam and Froilan trembled with pain and fear, his fellow Filipino seafarers encouraged him to hold on.
“’Kaya mo yan’ they said to me repeatedly.” The walls holding back the memory finally crumbled and the dam gave way to torrents. Froilan broke into tears and fell silent as he wept over the horrific accident.
“I was at the hospital for nine days with continuous pain killers. The nurses begged for me to sleep. But I couldn’t. I fought sleep. I was so scared that if I sleep I will never wake again, that I would never see my wife, my kids. I was there on my own, I had to plead for a fellow Filipino nurse to stay with me just so I won’t be alone,” he struggled to share in words that are barely audible with sobs and tears.
It took Froilan a few more minutes to compose himself and continue, this time remembering that despite all the financial assistance and appropriate compensations given by the company and the principal, the uncertainty of keeping his job now looms over him.
“It took me a year to fully recover and another year to find a company that will hire me again.” Come 2013, Froilan settled to work ashore as a Technical Recruitment Officer of Crystal Shipping, Inc. where he constantly shared to fellow seafarers the lessons he learned the hard way. He also volunteered with the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary, the PCG’s civilian-volunteer arm, to impart his knowledge on maritime safety and maritime search and rescue.
“Whenever I conduct the Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar, I always tell our crew the importance of safety while onboard, sharing to them my experience even if the memories always leave me in tears.
“Investigations following the accident revealed that the water tight door was unsafe and I had a lapse of judgement by forgetting to bring my handheld radio. But at the end of the day, rest hours are still a critical part of safety onboard ships. While the International Maritime Organization (IMO) laid and implemented rules on work and rest hours of seafarers, it is apparent that these are not normally applicable on the operational nature of ships because we have to work beyond the designated duty hours to make sure that everything is in perfect order; to be able to do this, we have to alter our Daily Shift Log
Form, otherwise the captain and ship will be answerable to ITF. Edited Log Forms not only means unpaid overtime for us but also exhaustion that will lead to accidents,” he explained.
10 years following the accident, Froilan continues to work on his dream of becoming a chief engineer and is now preparing for his next shipboard duty. He has also passed the licensure exam for the position last 2017 with hopes of finally getting promoted when he, again, starts working at sea.
“It has always been my dream to become a chief engineer, but it will remain a dream if I do not work for it. And so regardless of the accident and failed efforts in the past, I am pursuing this dream with the inspiration of providing a comfortable for my family,” he concluded.