A key witness at the NSW Coroners Court Inquest into two deaths on board the Sage Sagittarius in Sydney today (23 June) testified that the crew all feared the ship’s captain and thought they would be next to die.
When asked if he believed the chief cook, who disappeared from the Japanese coal carrier en route to Australia had committed suicide, or accidentally gone overboard, on 30 August 2012 the crew member, answered, “No sir I don’t believe that. We feared for our lives. We were scared. We were fearing one of us would be next.”
Counsel assisting the Coroner Philip Strickland then asked the witness if he believed ship’s captain Venancio Salas was involved in the deaths. He answered, “Yes, in my opinion sir, maybe he was.”
The day after chief cook Cesar Llanto disappeared overboard, the witness, whose identity the court agreed to withhold, said the captain threatened him saying, ‘Wherever you hide, I can find you”, while pointing his finger at him like he was firing a gun.
Testifying by video link from the Philippines the witness said the captain and cook argued on two occasions before the cook went missing.
He witnessed the first argument in the ship galley first hand while he was having his breakfast. The cook later told him that the captain had ordered crew food rations be cut and he disagreed because they worked hard and would be angry with him.
“Before we were given two pieces of chicken, now we were given one,” he told the court. “We got no milk, no fruit juice anymore.”
The crew member said the cook told him this would help increase the captain’s profit by about USD10 a day.
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The crew was intimidated by the master, who punched the mess boy repeatedly, the court heard. He also tried to force all crew to buy gun deliveries from him.
Three of the crew were secretly planning to report the abuse, gun running, and unpaid overtime to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority when the Panamanian flagged vessel arrived in Newcastle, the court heard.
“I saw the captain punching the mess man once,” the seafarer testified. “He punched him in the abdomen – hard because l saw later the mess boy crying.”
On the morning Llanto disappeared the court heard the captain had discovered the crew’s plan to lodge a complaint against him and called Llanto to the bridge where they again argued.
Llanto disappeared minutes later. He was the first of three suspected murders on board the Panamanian flagged NYK coal carrier. A second man, Hector Collado, chief engineer was killed before the ship arrived in Newcastle and a third man, a company safety superintendent was crushed to death by a conveyor belt while the vessel was docked in Japan one month later.
The inquest before Deputy State Coroner Magistrate Freund will resume later in the year.