THIRTEEN lives were lost in what is considered the worst river tragedy in the state when an expressboat was involved in a horrific accident with a barge at Sungai Kakus, Ulu Tatau in Bintulu recently.
In the incident at about 2.30pm on Oct 18, the expressboat was said to be negotiating a bend near Kelebu timber camp before it rammed a steel cable, used by a tugboat to tow a barge.
The impact reportedly lifted the expressboat into the air before sending it tumbling down again with the barge sitting on top of it. Most of the passengers were trapped inside the boat as it sank.
Questions are now being asked as to what is being done to avoid similar incidents in future. Apparently, putting in place safety guidelines alone is not enough. They must be strictly enforced to ensure their effectiveness.
An expressboat skipper with 10 years’ experience, said in Bintulu this was the first case he had heard of where so many lives were lost.
Amid mounting calls for adequate safety features to be installed in expressboats, he said as far as he knew, operators had never failed to provide the necessary equipment onboard.
“The seating capacity is different because some boats have 60 seats while others, 72. But in both cases, extra life jackets are always provided.”
The only difficulty, he pointed out, was getting passengers to put on their life jackets all the times.
“Before departure, we do inform them about the safety precautions like the importance of life jackets during an emergency. But it’s hard to make most of them understand the need to follow safety regulations.”
According to him, the other problem is the attitude of some passengers — such as those who clamber onto the roof and sit there throughout the journey.
“We do tell them not to do this since it’s dangerous but some just ignore our advice. So how? In the boat, there is also a Sarawak Rivers Board (SRB) signboard warning passengers not to sit on the roof.”
Some passengers also brought their luggage into the cabin when it should be placed on the roof, and this caused overcrowding — which could hinder movements during an emergency, he added.
The skipper stressed that where safety was concerned, the operators had complied with all the regulations.
“All expressboat captains are well-versed with their responsibilities — the do’s and don’ts — of their profession,” he said.
No summons issued
Bintulu Marine Operations Force (PGM) commanding officer ASP Iswandi Ken said from 52 inspections on expressboats in Bintulu this year, all the operators were found to be complying with the law.
“So far, no summons has been issued. We do have integrated inspections with other agencies like the SRB,” he told thesundaypost.
“In Bintulu alone, we have a record of about 315 expressboats and ships plying the river. For expressboats, Bintulu has four different companies while Sebauh and Binyo have five boats,” Iswandie said.
According to him, PGM will conduct integrated inspections with the agencies concerned and more operations will be carried out, particularly during festive seasons.
He said PGM also conducted inspections from time to time to check on errant operators, adding that all inspections and approvals, including for operating licence, came under the Marine Department.
Iswandie said so far, no overloading cases were found during PGM inspections at the main express wharf.
On the difficulty in identifying the drowned victims of the recent Tatau tragedy, he said during a stop at a longhouse or an ungazetted wharf, it was difficult to know the exact number of passengers embarking or disembarking.
“The people in Bintulu are not overly dependent on river transport as their houses or longhouses are now connected by roads. It is just those living in the interior who have to rely heavily on it,” Iswandie noted.
Sarawak Express Boat Association, 3rd, 6th & 7th Division chairman Lau Hieng Choon recently said the skippers had to go through stringent tests before being issued a licence.
According to him, they must undergo three years’ seamanship and a one-year course on safety before they are certified fit to pilot a boat.
Many factors involved
Another expressboat skipper in Bintulu discounted the possibility of human error during a mishap because, according to him, in any accident, more than one factors are involved.
“To my fellow skippers, my advice is to be careful next time because we already know when and where to reduce speed, where are the most dangerous areas for cornering and things like that. We all know it is a matter of being careful, observant and complying with regulations,” he said.
Expressboats travel from Bintulu to Sebauh and Binyo twice a day — at 8am and 1pm.
A frequent passenger Chuang Asak from Binyo, felt sad over the loss of lives in the Tatau accident.
Though traumatised by the tragedy, the 43-year-old, who has been travelling by river to Bintulu town since young, said people in his and other longhouses in the area had no other choice but to use river transport to get around.
Chuang who has three children and two grandchildren, travels by expressboat to Bintulu town once a week to stock up their daily necessities.
On the safety aspects, he said even though he knew the river well, he would still wear a life jacket all the times.
“To others, it’s kind of inconvenient but not for me because you never know when things can go wrong. Should something happen, there is bound to be panic and under pressure, people tend not to think rationally. But if you are already wearing a life jacket, at least it minimises the chances of drowning,” he explained.
One of the survivors, Elizabeth Angin Diran, 28, said the accident would haunt her for the rest of her life but she has no choice but to continue using river transport to return to her longhouse (RH Gundi Nanga Menua Kakus), about three hours from Tatau Bazaar.
She said it took longer by road (timber road) and that was why people from the longhouse opted to use expressboats.
During the accident, Elizabeth managed to save one daughter, Agnes, but lost another (five-year-old Alicia Emelda).
She said life jackets should be made compulsory for passengers. She also hoped expressboats would be installed with modern equipment.
Dina Nyuweng, the eldest sister of one of the victims, said with the death of her sister and brother in-law and their daughter, she’s now nervous about using expressboats.
“I prefer the road from now,” the 25-year-old added.
She said the enforcement agencies should be more aggressive in carrying out their duty to ensure the safety of river transport.
Dina urged the Sarawak Rivers Board to go to the ground for thorough checks on expressboats.