There is a maritime tradition that a distress call must never be ignored regardless of who makes the call. Even in a sporting event like the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, which in 1998 ended in tragedy when the race was hit by severe storms, after the race a boat crew was questioned severely following allegations that it ignored the plight of a crew on a sinking yacht which it passed in the race.
Well, Malaysiakini tells us that survivors of a Malaysian ferry sailing from Pulau Tioman to Mersing spoke of a fire breaking out on board their vessel yesterday. The incident left four dead and four injured. They said it was a terrifying scene as the ageing vessel filled with smoke, forcing them to hurl their children into the sea.
The fire broke out seven nautical miles into its journey, triggering a distress call which in the finest maritime tradition, fishing and tourist boats rushed to the scene and saved 94 people from the sea.
However, there is another maritime tradition which requires the captain of the ship and his crew to leave the vessel in distress ONLY AFTER every passenger had been taken care of.
It was this second tradition that was absent during the ferry fire.
Survivors accused the crew of abandoning them when the passenger cabin filled with thick, black smoke, and giving no help to the elderly and children on board.
Ng Li Peng, a passenger said of the crew: "They were irresponsible. They left us stranded on the burning ferry without rendering any help and jumped into the sea to save themselves."
"It was so dark and we were blinded. I grabbed my two children and hurled them into the sea and both my husband and I jumped into the sea as well. We would have perished if we had remained in the ferry. We do not know how to swim but had to jump into the sea as we had no other choice."
I guess it was then a case of the crew believing in "women and children after them"?
Yes, that’s our Pulau Tioman to Mersing ferry, not some Indon leaking vessel or an Egyptian boat packed to over capacity – it was a Malaysian ferry sailing in this land of Laksamana Hang Tuah, where we boast of the our maritime heritage which somehow our intrepid crew must have forgotten.
You may be shocked, but wait because there’s more. A Marine Department official said the ferry's permit to transport passengers had expired in December last year and not been renewed. That's almost one year of unlicensed sailing!
So? What's our regulator doing? Look, it's a Marine Department official who said that, so was there any close-one-eye thingy at the top?
I have also read of incidents of terrifying, unauthorised and definitely unsafe mid-sea passenger transfer from ferry to ferry just to save the expense of sailing a ferry, which had very few passengers on board, all the way between the two ports.
Another passenger, Sybil Lucas, 30, said the ferry was old and no longer suitable to transport passengers. She queried: "During the trip, the engine was giving off a strange noise. The body of the ferry was in a bad condition. I do not understand why the vessel was still in service."
Indeed, we need to ask too because we just had a recent case of another public transport disaster which became a case of Too little, too late, for 22! because the driver fell asleep on the wheel and allowed the vehicle to hit a road barrier while on a downhill road. It skidded off the highway, overturned and fell into a ditch.
We then found out that the driver of a bus, 28 year old Rohizan Abu Bakar, had two outstanding arrest warrants for reckless driving, apart from 13 summonses from police. Yet he continued to drive ... his passengers to their deaths, or shall I put it more correctly, that because the responsible party or parties failed to stop him from driving the bus as they should, he was thus allowed to kill those unfortunate passengers.
At the heart of the malaise leading to all these tragedies, please read Express buses - who's regulating whom?