A fisherman who was on board the ill-fated FB GEM-VER is unsure if the Chinese vessel that rammed their boat saw them before the collision, a Palace official said Tuesday.
Secretary Manny Piñol, who is tasked to head the government response to the June 9 sinking of FB GEM-VER at Recto Bank within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, said the fishing boat's cook, Richard Blaza, was the only one awake before the incident happened.
He said that during the incident, Blaza was cooking rice for their rations while the other fishermen were sleeping.
"Richard told me shortly before the accident, the captain was sleeping in his cabin, the captain's cabin. And there were only 2 lights in the fishing boat - one in the captain's cabin and one in the kitchen," he told ANC.
Before midnight of June 10, Blaza spotted a Chinese vessel headed towards their direction. He told Piñol the other vessel also had lights on in the captain's cabin.
"When he saw the vessel was coming towards their direction, he rushed to the captain and roused the captain from his sleep and told him that there was an oncoming vessel," Piñol quoted Blaza as saying.
"He said the captain tried to start the engine but it was too late, they were hit by the vessel. Shortly after the impact, he said the vessel actually slowed down, lighted the vessel and trained on them flashlights."
"Many of them were already in the water and they were asking for help but the Chinese vessel tuned off the lights and sped off and left the scene."
Piñol said a proper investigation is needed to determine if the ramming of the FB GEM-VER was intentional or not.
Abandoning the 22 Filipino fishermen at sea after the ramming is already a violation of maritime laws, he said.
"We denounce that. The Department of Agriculture, as the agency where these fishermen belong to as stakeholders, denounce the act by the Chinese fishing vessel of abandoning the fishermen while they were in the water seeking for help," he said.
Piñol said that during his conversation with Blaza, he asked the cook if he believes the ramming was intentional.
"'Sir, maaaring hindi kami nakita,'" Piñol recalled Blaza as saying.
"'Yun ang statement nung kusinero kasi dalawa lang ang ilaw nila - isa sa kitchen, isa sa kamarote ng kapitan."
He said that while he considers Blaza the most reliable witness in the incident, his claims still need to be investigated and validated by a proper maritime investigating body.
Asked if the cook is more reliable than the vessel's captain, Piñol said: "Eh tulog 'yung kapitan."
"'Yung statement ng kapitan na parang certain siya na intentional ang pagbangga sa kanila ng barko ng Intsik is based on his appreciation. Let me emphasize the statement of the cook - he was the only one who was awake at the time of the accident."
F/B GEM-VER Captain Junel Insigne earlier said the Chinese saw their boat sinking and even turned off their lights before leaving them at sea.
"Binangga kami ng Chinese. Pagkabangga sa'min akala namin tutulungan kami, 'yun pala tatakasan kami," he said.
In a statement, the Chinese Embassy said the Chinese captain attempted to rescue the Filipino fishermen but was "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats."
President Rodrigo Duterte has described the sinking of the Filipino fishing boat as a "maritime incident" that is not enough for the government to send Philippine Navy ships to the area.
"You do not send gray ships (Philippine Navy) there. Banggaan lang ng barko 'yan. Do not make it worse because that is a fertile ground for... Alam ninyong mga sundalo, miscommunication 'yan. Patay na. And we are not yet as ready, and we can never be ready in nuclear war, because in nuclear war, kung bitawan lahat 'yan, earth will dry up and we will all be destroyed," he said.
The President said he will not be issuing an official statement since the incident has yet to be investigated.
Piñol said the President was not downplaying the incident but was listening to all angles of the story. He said the President's words describing the sinking as a maritime incident is factual, based on Blaza's testimony.
"We have to call a spade a spade. Of course we have to defend our Filipino fishermen. In fact we are really going out of our way to help them," he said.
"But you know, we have to be very careful about incidents like this. The President is a leader...He is not going to play to the cries of the mob. He has to make a decision based on intelligent appreciation of the facts. He just cannot make a haphazard decision just to satisfy the lust for blood of some sectors."