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Pearl Lee
Wednesday, Oct 1, 2014

Singapore

'Even a black dot is hope'

The Straits Times | Pearl Lee | Wednesday, Oct 1, 2014

Mr Tee Eng Kui (above) was 35 when the cargo ship he was on sank after it sprung a leak. Of the 39 sailors on board, 30 survived, as reported by The Straits Times then.

Every other day for more than a fortnight, Mr Tee Eng Kui woke up ready for his gruesome morning rites.

A friend and fellow sailor, thoroughly soaked, would have died of hunger or hypothermia. Mr Tee, the makeshift undertaker, would neaten their clothes, comb their hair and bid them farewell.

The corpses were slipped off the lifeboat, disappearing into the Indian Ocean.

"There were 39 of us, only 30 came back," he said in Mandarin.

He was 35 and drifting on the ocean in a lifeboat packed with his fellow seamen after his ship sank in June 1971, one of Singapore's worst shipwrecks.

For 16 days, he wondered if he would be the next to die, he recalled, sharing his story as Europe suffered its most deadly migrant shipwreck earlier this month, when as many as 500 migrants were believed to have died after human traffickers deliberately rammed their ship.

The trauma of such tragedies does not ease with the years, said Mr Tee, now 78, as he rattled off the names of the men who did not come back.

"I think of those days and those friends a lot," he said in an interview at an Upper Cross Street coffee shop.

He was in a cargo ship sailing from Singapore to Visakhapatnam in eastern India when it sprang a leak.

"It was a small leak at first. We got the carpenter to mend it, but the hole got bigger until it started sinking."

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