KOTA KINABALU, May 12 — A 10-day search for four people, including a Malaysian, who went missing on a boat off the coast of Kudat, ended today after local authorities discovered they were on two fishing boats in Vietnam waters.
According to Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) regional director of Sabah and Labuan First Admiral Mohd Zubil Mat Som, the four are alive and well although it was unclear how they had ended up on the Vietnamese boats.
“We don’t know how or when they ended up on the boat, our focus was to get them on a Malaysian vessel,” he told a press conference this evening.
He said local authorities were sent to retrieve the four — resort owner Tommy Lam Wai Yin, 44, Spaniards David Hernandes Gasula, 29, and Martha Miguel, 30 and Malaysian Armella Ali Hassan, 23 — and the group should now be on their way back to Kota Kinabalu on MMEA vessel KM Bestari.
Explaining the turn of events, Mohd Zubil said the authorities first heard of the survivors when they apprehended a Vietnamese boat that was fishing illegally in Malaysian waters near Pulau Layang Layang at 8.30am today.
“Fishermen on the boat were on the radio with their skipper who was on another boat and at unidentified location when Armella came on the radio. She identified herself and told us she was with Tommy on one boat but David and Martha were on a different boat,” he said at a press conference earlier.
“We were told are all safe and well, albeit a bit sunburnt,” said Mohd Zubil, adding that they had taken several hours to confirm the Spanish couple were indeed safe.
After several hours of satellite phone communications,, it was established that the two boats carrying Lam, Gasula, Miguel and Armella were heading back to Vietnam waters.
Mohd Zubil said that Malaysian authorities asked the other trawlers to turn back to hand over the four but they had refused then for fear of being arrested for illegal fishing.
“The Maritime Rescue Coordinating Centre of Vietnam and Malaysia negotiated and we came to the agreement that we will release the 15 fishermen to them without any arrests or charges in exchange for the four.
“Apprehending the fishing trawler in our waters was crucial to finding these four, if we did not come in contact with them, we would still be searching for them, and they would probably have been taken all the way back to Vietnam before being released,” he said.
The four went missing in the evening of May 2 after a day trip to the lesser known Balambangan island. A massive multi-agency search-and-rescue operation kicked off Tuesday.
Last Sunday, local fishermen found a 3HP speedboat engine belonging to Lam’s boat trapped in their nets.
The boat, on the other hand, had sunk to the sea bed some 2.6 nautical miles from Pulau Balambangan.
Relatives had also given up hope of finding the four adrift or washed ashore and began to believe that they had been taken by cross border criminals.
Mohd Zubil thanked other agencies such as the Malaysian Navy, marine police, Air Force, Department of Civil Aviation and fire and Rescue Services Department for their efforts in the search and rescue over the last ten days.