OWWA: Truckers in Riyadh blast mostly from Benguet town
BAGUIO CITY, Philippines — A group of farmers and vegetable truckers from Barangay Balili in Mankayan, Benguet, has been serving as heavy equipment drivers for various companies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, including Ruben Kebeng, who is now being questioned on the Nov. 1 blast that killed over 20 people and hurt 135 others.
The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) on Tuesday said six Filipino workers from Mankayan were in the area when a gasoline tanker hit a post of a flyover in eastern Riyadh on Nov. 1, triggering an explosion that tore through an industrial district there as well as a fleet of trucks parked nearby.
Philippine embassy officials reported on Monday that Kebeng might have been driving the first truck that triggered the blast.
The online report of the Arab news channel, Al Jazeera, quoted Riyadh police captain Mohamed Hubail Hammadi, who said: “The truck driver was surprised by a road accident on its route, causing it to crash into one of the pillars of the bridge.”
Relatives of about 20 Mankayan residents working in Riyadh trooped to the OWWA Cordillera office here on Tuesday to find out whether the government could find a way to bring them home.
Benguet Board Member Pacito Donato spoke on the families’ behalf at OWWA.
Donato’s nephew, Melchor Labey, was among the drivers hurt in the blast and had undergone surgery in a Saudi hospital to remove shrapnel and glass shards in his body, Donato said.
Families who showed up at OWWA said they believed Mankayan residents Gilbert Inseñas, Franco Marquez and brothers Jomar and Julius Tangke were near the blast site but were unhurt.
Julius was not driving, but had hitched a ride back to Riyadh, a Mankayan resident said.
Donato said the relatives met with Benguet Gov. Nestor Fongwan on Monday to urge him to repatriate all 20 Mankayan workers, but they were prevailed upon to wait for developments first.
“Nakita iyong extent ng damage, siyempre sa pangyayari na iyon natakot sila (They saw the extent of damage in Riyadh so they got scared for their family members there),” he said.
They also supported Novena, Kebeng’s wife, who needed assurances from the government that Kebeng would get justice while under Saudi government custody, said Manuela Peña, OWWA Cordillera director.
The Mankayan migrant workers have been working for almost a year in Riyadh. Many were recruited through the Benguet Public Employment Service Office (PESO).
Kebeng was working for Arabian trucking firm, Alzodaez, said Aida, Inseñas’ wife. Inseñas has been sending their relatives in Mankayan information about developments in Riyadh.
Both Novena and Aida were outraged by reports that described the driver who caused the accident as either drunk while on the job or as a rookie who was distracted to crash his vehicle.
“They used to ship out vegetables here,” said Donato, whose family owns a farm in Mankayan. He said it was unlikely Kebeng erred because of his skills in Benguet as a vegetable trucker.
Aida said: “They were drivers here. Speculation that Kebeng had committed error, that’s not true. When they say he was drunk, that’s not true either because he doesn’t drink).”
Aida said her husband has been working for a different company and had arrived from a trip.
Novena said her husband sent her a text message before the accident on All Saints’ Day, asking about their preparations for the holiday.
Then word about the accident reached the Balili community, she said, through their neighbors.
Many feared that Kebeng himself had died, Aida said, only to be surprised by further reports that he had survived and was being blamed for the accident.
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