Remembering the M/V Don Juan Tragedy: One summer trip gone wrong

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She stood by the railings and looked down as the ship sailed, its solid steel mercilessly cutting through an equally merciless sea — a scene that, 10 years ago nearly swallowed her and her sister forever.

Bebol Carreon broke down watching this scene. This was her catharsis, her way of releasing the pent-up feelings, the frustration, the fears, maybe the anger, and yes, the guilt that had bottled inside her frail body as a survivor of the sinking of M/V Don Juan, a tragedy that may well qualify as Negros’ own Titanic, a disaster that had marked the end of one glorious era.

It took 10 years for Bebol to muster enough strength to confront the ghosts and demons that had haunted her since that one fateful night, in April 22, 1982, when a summer trip had gone awfully wrong and she ended up fighting for life, in the middle of a shark-infested sea. She was 14, going on 15, and looking forward to a nice, leisurely trip back to Bacolod; what ensued, instead, were 10-15 most fateful minutes of her life that went on for hours, then a half a day until she got back to her family; and then years, until she got back herself, strong enough to go back to it again even if only in the mind. Bebol recalled:

The bang and the shudder they heard and felt when the tanker hit their boat; the fight for life vests – someone had barged into their cabin and tried to snatch their life vests; the faces of two members of a family who, in the ensuing confusion, came looking for each other — they all perished, their bodies never found ; the eerie calmness of the queue where another family had lined up, supposedly for a safe exit from the sinking ship — their bodies were never found ; the sight of people ministering to a bloodied passenger whom they wanted to bring to the infirmary not realizing they were minutes away from being swallowed by the sea;

The mad rush to the portholes while the ship was already tilting: a line had formed in one where a large woman got stuck; while two others nearby were ignored — these were the ones Bebol and Therese used; the sight of a man who stood right at the porthole Bebol was struggling to come out of, he was the one who took her hand and got her out – she never saw him again, much less get his name. She called him her “Angel.”

Once out of the porthole, Bebol recalled, it took them only three steps on what was presumably the side of the ship already when it sank, sucking them with it into sea, once, twice, three times. By the third time, Bebol said, she was grasping at the sleeves of her sister, thinking, one more time and she’ll die. She was swallowing salt water and hardly any air, and her energy was leaving her.Fortunately, the third time they bobbed out of the waters was the last, and they now were surrounded by people screaming and swimming for life, and lifeboats waiting for the rescue.

Bebol and her sister, Therese, were high school girls who were coming from a summer vacation in Manila, together with friends who were on board with their families. They were traveling on their own, delivered to the pier by their sister and scheduled to be picked up in Banago port by their parents the next day – a common practice then

It was a fun trip, Bebol remembered. They knew many people in the trip – neighbors, family friends, classmates, relatives. A friend who was with ther family was supposed to join them in their upside cabin for the night. Teenagers went to the disco. Some people were drinking. Like the Titanic, although in a much, much smaller scale, Don Juan was known for its comfortable provisions that attracted the A crowd who made it part of their vacations. Just as the sinking of Titanic ended an era for the pre-war world so did Don Juan end the glamour of sea travel hereabouts.

Bebol and Therese floated in the sea for almost four hours. The lifeboats were full, and people had initially reckoned they’d turn upside down if another got in. So Bebol begged one of those in a lifeboat to just hold her hand while they floated beside.

All this time, the sisters were playing Mary and Martha – Bebol was finding ways while Therese prayed. Shortly before leaving their cabin, Therese had plucked a scapular on the wall and brought it with her, clasping to it while they were fighting for life.

The tanker that hit Don Juan stood nearby while all this time and some people in it were throwing rope to them to lasso their lifeboats to the vessel. Their lifeboat was eventually caught by the rope, and they got into the tanker. It was about 2 a.m., some four hour since they heard the big bang and felt the horrible shudder.

The experience had left Bebol grappling with life’s questions with an intensity that others may not have. She had stared at death for hours and felt extraordinary emotions: how people can claw you out for survival, what people can do and give to be alive – indeed, she had danced with death and for nothing else but God’s grace lived on.

Looking back now, she said, it made her realize she is alive for a reason. Why am I here? is a question that assumed profound dimensions after her survival; it is also one question which answers continue to evolve, she admitted.

But there was one conclusion she drew from it all, that her life was meant to be lived for the service of others. She now works with Bacpat Bacolod Patenkinder a non-government organization that runs an intervention program to snatch children from the deadly claws of poverty. She is also actively involved in the church.

From the Don Juan exerience, Bebol also found a steely strength that allowed her to live through life’s adversities. In 19___, she was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer, which she also survived. It was of course another kind of fight, and should come as another story by itself. Suffice it to say that the lady who fought it was once the high-schooler who fought, and swam, and talked her way to survive the savage sea.*

M/V Don Juan left the port of Manila at around 1 p.m. of April 22, 1980 for Bacolod City. It sank 20 nautical miles or 37.04 km off Maestre de Campo Island, Oriental Mindoro after the oil tanker M/T Tacloban City hit it. Reports said there were 18 confirmed dead, 115 missing,
and 745 survivors.

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