Ensign Ralph O. Barajan of the Philippine Coast Guard was awarded the highest honor from the International Maritime Organization.

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The International Maritime Organization (IMO) awarded a Filipino the highest distinction for his bravery in early April this year, leadership, and dedication in ensuring the survival of 62 people onboard the M/V Siargao Princess when it sank in Sibunga, Cebu, in November 2019.

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In a virtual awards ceremony streamed live on the United Nations specialized agency’s YouTube page, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) officer Ensign Ralph O. Barajan was presented with the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea. Two Brazilian pilots were also recognized for their decisiveness and ship handling expertise in preventing a massive maritime oil disaster.

Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, France, Mexico, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Russia, and Vietnam were among the worthy nominees. They were nominated by their governments and assessed by an IMO assessment panel comprised of non-governmental organizations. The top recipients were presented with diplomas and medals in honor of their achievements.

The shipwreck occurred on November 7, 2019. Even though it was over a year ago, the details in the mind of then-Seaman First Class (SN1) Barajan remain vivid. When asked to recount the circumstances leading up to the disaster, he responds, “Hindi natin makakalimutan yun.”

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The 31-year-old PCG officer recalls the day as bright and beautiful, with no signs of a weather disturbance on the horizon. He was aware of this because he was watching weather reports at the time. He recalls, “Normal, blue skies, hindi maalon.” He was then transferred to a coast guard station in Southern Cebu, but he would return to his home in Bohol on a regular basis.

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Barajan took the first available journey at the Catagbacan Port in Bohol after receiving an urgent call to report for work. During the journey, he was dozing off when he was startled by a ruckus. Strong waves were crashing against their ship.

As soon as the vessel began to take in water, Barajan immediately notified nearby coast guard stations and substations that their ship, the M/V Siargao Princess, was in difficulty. He also dialed his PCG station commander. “At the moment, kami was alam ko nang lulubog. He recalls, “Nakita ko na doon na talaga papunta.”

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As the waves grew stronger, Barajan began to speak with the passengers in an attempt to calm them down. He said he worked for the PCG and had alerted the stations about their predicament. The passengers in the front were ordered to relocate to the back, to make no movements in order to avoid becoming unbalanced, and to wear their life jackets. When he noticed the children’s passengers lacked life jackets, he went on the upper deck to find the crew and request that they offer the children with the flotation gear.

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The upper deck was a shambles. “Nakita ko [ang staff] sa taas,” says the crew, who is as perplexed as the passengers. “Nakita ko [ang crew] sa taas, equally confused as the passengers. Nag-aaway-away na sila, yung iba umiiyak, di alam ang gagawin,”

Barajan addressed the captain once more and persuaded him to issue an order to “abandon ship.” The captain originally disagreed, claiming that help was already on the way. He knew that the rescuers were coming from the northern part of Cebu, while the ship was in the southern half, and that it would take a long time for them to arrive. He recalls telling the captain, “Baka kako wala ngchance para umalis sa cabins ang mga pasahero dun sa baba.” He was eventually able to persuade the skipper to sound the abandon ship warning.

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Barajan, who had been trained to conduct water search and rescue operations, went below to inform passengers that the captain had ordered everyone to evacuate ship and not to panic. Many of the passengers were old, according to Barajan, a certified nurse. They were on a tour to Cebu’s miraculous Simala Shrine. There were a few small youngsters with their parents as well. “Sabi ko walang magdadala ng bag, nandun ako sa dulo, sa exit.” He says, “Ako ang taga-harang pag may dala.”

“I had to shove them because nahirapan ako sa mga matatanda kasi ayaw nilang magsitalon.” Otherwise, maiiwan sa loob sila. “I made certain that there would be no naiwan [on the ship] if ako tumalon,” Barajan explains.

He recalls precisely when he jumped from the ship. “May kasama akong matanda,” says the narrator. ‘Lola, talon na tayo,’ sabi ko. Ayaw talaga. Ang piliting tumalon ko syang kailangan ko syang kailangan ko syang kailang When I returned my gaze after nakatalon na kami, wala na ang barko. “Ganoon kabilis,” he heard the gurgling sound as the ship sank into the wat

Emotions were running high as they were battered by the powerful waves, especially among parents who had been separated from their young children. “Merong nagmamakaawa, merong nagmamakaawa, merong nagmamaka ‘Ikaw na ang bahala sa anak ko.’ Naghahabilin na ang bahala sa anak ko. He recalls, “Yun ang pinakamahirap sa akin nung nandun kami sa tubig.”

When he assigned the jobs, everyone’s cooperation saved them, according to Barajan. “Nagpasalamat din ako sa mga crew kasi kahit na may lapses sila, nagtulungan kami nung nandun na kami sa dagat—sa pagtali, pag collect ng mga tao, finally nagtulungan kami nung nandun na kami sa dagat—sa pagtali, pag collect He says, “It’s not like ako lang ang gumawa ng lahat.” Passengers were likewise willing to help. While waiting for assistance, he recalls a fellow seaman who assisted in keeping everyone safe.

Because of his bravery and dedication, no one was killed in the disaster. There were elderly people who needed to be sent to the hospital, as well as crew members who were exhausted. Along the way, one person passed out. In the end, though, everyone was saved.

It took a long time for the IMO Awardee to move on from that occurrence. It helped that he had to tell the narrative to the local media and LGUS so many times that it became therapeutic for him to tell it.

Manila Papers