Hope dims for the search of missing tourist

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

CAGAYAN DE ORO (Updated) – Hope is dimming for the adventure tourist who had gone missing following a white water rafting accident as efforts transition from search and rescue to search and recovery.

Chisum Factura of Kagay Journey-White Water Rafting and Kayaking said the female tourist, identified as 26 year-old nurse Aizza Mae C. Balbin of Loboc, Bohol, may have gotten entangled under boulders in a section of the river with strong undercurrents.

Although rescuers are not yet giving up hope that Balbin may yet be found alive, Factura said rescuers, including rescue divers from the Philippine Coast Guard, said there is a chance Balbin may have gotten trapped after failing to surface despite wearing a life vest.

Balbin has so far also failed to turn up downstream.

Kagay river guides and volunteers met with Coast Guard divers Friday night and suspended the rescue efforts due to difficult conditions like the heavy downpour.

The river swelled Friday and turned a chocolate brown color due to rains upriver. The boulder where Balbin is suspected to be entangled is in the other side of a deep section of the river, beside a stiff cliff wall.

River guides
CAGAYAN DE ORO. River guides of Kagay Journey-White Water Rafting and Kayaking search for a guest who had gone missing Friday, June 13, after the raft she was on with four others capsized. This photo was taken on June 14, 2014. (Photo by JB R. Deveza)

A better ‘undercut’

Mark Joffe, head of the International Rafting Federation, said that although they couldn’t penetrate the ‘undercut rock’ where the rafting boat flipped, they saw a calm area at the right side of the river.

“When divers went below the ‘undercut rock’ and tried to search for Aizza, it would still be impossible because the water current is still high. They really have to retract. However, maybe we can get into the undercut rock by diving through the calm side of the river. Right now, we are still looking into it as a possible route to take,” Joffe said.

“Nature of the white water is very powerful. It would only take five minutes for a person to die under an undercut rock with fast water current. In kayaking, no matter what you do, you have to deal with the nature of the wilderness,” he said.

River guides
CAGAYAN DE ORO. Members of Bombo Rescue 2000 help scour the areas where the raft flipped to search for Aizza Mae Balbin who has remained missing since Friday, June 13. (Photo by JB R. Deveza)

The search for Balbin resumed at about 6 a.m. Saturday, with river guides on board kayaks and rafts paddling to the other side to secure ropes that were later used to tie individual guides doing the search.

A group of volunteers aboard jet skis have also been scouring the downstream sections near the river mouth.

By about 9 a.m., rescuers in the accident site totaled about 85 individuals from the Cagayan de Oro Police Office (COCPO), the Red Cross, Rescue 411, the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (CDRRMO), and from Kagay itself.

The rescue efforts, though spirited, however seem to be a little disorganized, according to a medical doctor who refused to be identified.

"Murag dili man on top ang City (the city seem to be not on top of the situation)," the doctor observed.

The rescue efforts are still being directed by Kagay officials and not by the CDRRMO. Representatives from Kagay were the ones who requested the help of the Coast Guard in the evening after informing the Office of the Mayor of the accident at about 4 p.m. Friday.

Asked to comment, retired colonel Mario Verner Monsanto, CDRRMO officer designate, said Kagay officials continue to have primary responsibility on the rescue efforts as they have not formally asked for help.

The "incident command system" dictates that the CDRRMO can take over only after Kagay asks for help, Monsanto said. Monsanto said elements of the CDRRMO came to the site at 3:45 p.m. Friday but left around 7 p.m. as nobody briefed them of the situation.

"Besides," Monsanto said, "it became clear to us before leaving Friday night that the efforts were no longer geared toward rescue as four of the five were already safe."

When asked about Balbin, Monsanto said what needed to be done was more on retrieval "because of the time frame" as Balbin had gone missing at 2 p.m. on Friday.

"We have been standing by, ready to help," Monsanto said.

River guides
CAGAYAN DE ORO. Despite the white water rafting incident on Friday, June 13, rafting tours scheduled on Saturday, June 14, 2014 continue. This group of tourists passes by the site where the search of the missing tourist is ongoing. Mayor Oscar Moreno mulls on suspending the rafting tours if there isn’t assurance that the incident won’t recur. (Photo by Erwin M. Mascarinas)

Lackluster efforts

Balbin's friend and raft companion, Patrick Agus, also criticized the seemingly lackluster rescue efforts.

"I had wanted the rescue efforts to go 24 hours," Agus said.

Agus had kept an overnight vigil at the site, together with Kagay river guides and officials and some rescue volunteers from private groups.

“I can’t leave the area; I am keeping in touch with her (Aizza) family and keeping them posted on the situation of the search. I just wish the authorities can do better than what I have been witnessing for the past hours. It is possible that she is still trapped underneath and I am hoping that she can still be found,” he said.

With search lights focused on the accident site and in another site about 3 kilometers downstream, Agus and the volunteers had kept the vigil Friday despite the suspended rescue efforts.

A representative of the family, Marjorie Balbin Paredes, arrived from Cebu City on the early morning flight, going directly to the accident site. Paredes said Balbin's parents are hopeful their daughter will turn up soon but said both are unable to come as of the moment as Balbin's father is bedridden.

Paredes said it was Aizza's first time in Cagayan de Oro. It was also her first time to go white water rafting.

Mulls suspension

Mayor Oscar Moreno said the rafting industry is self-regulated since they are experts on the field.

“The government is not an expert on that area and it doesn’t have the capacity to do thorough search but we will have a closer look at the industry,” Moreno assured.

Moreno is mulling on suspending the rafting tours if there isn’t an assurance that the incident won’t recur.

“Water rafting is important to the Kagay-anons, but life is also important,” he told reporters Saturday.

Joffe recommended that the guides should continue to train and travel to other rivers to raise their caliber.

In disbelief

Patrick Agus
CAGAYAN DE ORO. Patrick Agus, one of those who fell after the raft capsized, shows the cuts and bruises in his arms and leg as he slammed against the rocks and strong undercurrent after he fell into the water on Friday, June 13. This photo is taken on June 14, 2014. (Photo by Erwin Mascarinas)

“We never expected it would happen to us, we were close to completing the entire course when our raft suddenly capsized. It felt like I was in a large washing machine, can’t see anything I thought I was about to die. It was so dark, but after a while I saw a light and then give it my best to swim toward it,” said Agus.

It was not the first time that Agus had white water rafting.

Unfortunately, it was the first time for his two companions from Cebu and Azzi, the missing tourist, from Bohol.

Agus bore scratches and bruises in his arms and legs as he slammed into the rock edges. He refused to leave the area where the search is ongoing.

“She is a loving and cheerful daughter. She is a trusting friend and I cannot even paint a single negative characteristic of her. I am in state of shock, and I think her family in Bohol too,” Paredes told Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro after the press conference Saturday.

According to Paredes, Aizza does online work at home. But, she used to work as a nurse. “She works hard for her family since his dad is bedridden and her mom works in the government. She is also preparing to go to Australia for better career options,” Paredes said as she wiped her tears.

Paredes said Aizza’s mom is still in “denial.”

“Chances are, with how I see things now, she may be, yeah, dead. But I am still hoping that she is alive. Part of me still believes that she is alive. I want to hold on to that. When I called her mom, she said that Aizza is still alive and rescuers should put more effort on searching for her,” she said. (With Erwin Mascarinas)

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