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Tragedy strikes in the deep

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, April 28, 2014

IT is one of the worst tragedies that have happened in Fiji waters so far. A cyclone warning was in force but like another vessel, the 212 tonne inter-island ship Uluilakeba was out at sea with 74 passengers and 21 crew members. The ship had unloaded cargo on Vatoa in the Lau Group on December 10, 1973, and was heading to Suva when it got stuck in the centre of Cyclone Lottie. Unable to stand up against storm force winds, the ship capsized in waters off Vatoa, resulting in the deaths of 54 people, most of whose bodies were never found. Earlier on that day, the ship Makogai capsized between Fulaga and Namuka-i-Lau when strong winds and heavy rain were lashing Fiji. The official death toll from the two shipping disasters during Cyclone Lottie was 84. There were 41 survivors from the Uluilakeba tragedy. Today, we continue with the survival story of a crew member who was in the deep sea for more than 48 hours after the Uluilakeba capsized. It is about the faith in God, the will to survive and meet his loved ones, and the use of some tactics to avoid becoming prey for sharks.

THE cyclone had passed and the night had gone. It was daylight and more than 12 hours after the inter-island ship Uluilakeba had sunk at the height of Cyclone Lottie on December 10, 1973.

The ship had unloaded cargo at Vatoa in the Lau Group just after 10am and left for Suva as the cyclone was lashing the country when it got into problems.

With 74 passengers, 21 crew members and some cargo, the ship got stuck in the centre of the cyclone and capsized.

A few hours before the Uluilakeba capsized, the Marine Department's cutter Makogai capsized between Kabara and Fulaga in the Lau Group.

On December 12, 1973, The Fiji Times front page reported the two shipping tragedies, which claimed 84 lives.

Cama Gu, who was 21 years old then and a crew member of the Uluilakeba, said the ship tried to cross to Ogea after getting caught in the cyclone but she could not because of the strong winds, heavy rain and rough seas.

Mr Gu, now 70 and of Ono-i-Lau, is one of the 41 people who survived the Uluilakeba tragedy.

He left the ship at about midday when it started to capsize. He did not have enough time to take any food or water with him, as life was more important.

After 30 minutes or so, he saw a 44-gallon drum roll down from the ship and he swam for it and clung onto it to keep afloat.

Soon, four men, a woman and three children who had also survived the tragedy were with him and they stayed together as a group on Monday night (December 10, 1973).

A 14-year-old girl, who was in the group died that night from the injuries she had suffered while escaping from the capsizing ship.

Considering that they were in open seas and nothing could be done about the girl's body, they released her into the sea.

Mr Gu said after the girl's death, there were eight of them together when daylight broke on Tuesday, December 11, and they saw Fulaga and Ogea islands in the distance.

But since the sea was very rough and the survivors were without food and water in the cold seas, they could not swim towards the islands.

Later that morning, the eight survivors who had stuck together saw a ship and thought it was there to rescue them.

But it did not reach them and they stayed together in the sea without any food and water for yet another night.

"When daylight broke on Wednesday, we were still in the sea, clinging onto hope that we will be rescued soon. We did not have any food or water from Monday afternoon," said Mr Gu.

"On Wednesday evening, the ship that we had seen a day before came and rescued us. I know that only the woman in the group and I got on board the ship.

"When the ship was coming towards us, I saw a big shark between the ship and where we were. I told the woman to just stay still in the water and the shark went away.

"I don't know what happened to the others who were with us, whether they had drowned or they were also rescued by the ship."

Mr Gu said they were offered food and water on board the rescue ship Soochow but he had only a glass of water and changed into warm clothes.

He said when the Soochow arrived in Suva on Thursday morning (December 13), he was taken to the CWM Hospital where he was admitted for two weeks.

"There were pieces of glass in my legs. I think I had got hurt when I jumped off the Uluilakeba when it was going down. I was on the top deck when it capsized."

Mr Gu believes that the cargo on board the vessel was not stacked properly, thus the weight being on one side resulting in the ship capsizing.

"I was single at that time and a crew member on the ship for three years. I lost my workmates and friends in the tragedy, not forgetting the passengers.

"From that day, I have never gone back to sea and none of my four children are involved in anything to do with the sea.

"The reason why I haven't gone back to sea is that I'm afraid after whatever happened almost 41 years ago. I'm just afraid to go back to sea," said Mr Gu.

On December 13, 1973, this newspaper reported on the front page that hopes for the survivors was fading. The next day it was reported that only two bodies had been found.

Some of the survivors told this newspaper on December 14 that they had to jump into the sea without lifejackets when the ship capsized.

On the same day, police gave the names of the 41 people who had survived the Uluilakeba tragedy.

The survivors were:-

PASSENGERS: Filipe Waqabaca, 16, of Tokelau, Kabara; Amani Namosimalua, 20, of Komo; Vulaono Korovavala, 15, of Komo; Navutu Korovavala, 20, of Komo; Ledua Meli Madrasalusalu, 39, of Komo; Vakatalai Titi, 37, of Moce; Sikeli Waqa,27 , of Moce; Pauliasi Temo, 40, of Moce; Leba Sekoula, 25, of Moce; Nimilote Tamusu, 22, of Moce; Ana S. Albert, 21, of Moce; Ledua Waqa, 15, of Korotolu, Moce; Metuisela Mua, 21, of Korotolu, Moce; Peni Tubere, 36,, Korotolu, Moce; Anaisa Beti Bulitayaco, 26, of Oneata; Vika Ranadi, 52, of Oneata; Masae Ulita, 46, of Dakuiloa, Oneata; Seci Vakadurivatu, 43, of Waiqori, Oneata; Sailosi Kacanivesi, 49, of Fulaga; Reverend Inosi Batibasaga ,23, of Muanaicake; Losalini Tawaraici, 26, of Naividamu; Lavinia Akayawa Mavoa ,23, of Muana-i-ra; Rasolo Cama, 39, of Vatoa; Naikeli Cama, 11, of Vatoa; Joeli Kalougata, 14, of Vatoa. Master Pio Maulu of Ogea and Jo Vunivalu of Nabatia were believed to have been washed ashore at Fulaga.

CREW: Bernard Smith, 25, Relief Second Engineer; Apisai Vera, 22, Cadet Officer; Lasarusa Tuilevu, 43, Boson; Waisale Vai, 42, Quarter Master; Cama Gu ,21, Able Seaman; Akuila Rara, 25, Ordinary Seaman; Tomasi Kaitani, 26, Ordinary Seaman; Samuela Volau, 28, Ordinary Seaman; Vu Vurenakadavu, 22, Relief Chief Steward; Josefa Kawa ,42 ; Apisai Dreve,21 ; William Smith, 21, Relieving Officer. Eremasi Salusalu, 46, watchman and Lepani Seniyagaona, ordinary seaman, were at Fulaga.

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