Philippines Ferry Sinking: Recurring Disaster

After its ferry, the MV Princess of the Stars, went to the bottom on June 21 in a raging typhoon, killing at least 700 people, the owner, Sulpicio Lines, is aggressively seeking to escape the blame, filing a P4.4 million (US$92,060) suit against Philippine weather officials for alleged “neglect of duty and gross incompetence” in reporting the track of typhoon Fengshen. MV Princess of the Stars sailed right into the eye of the storm.

Sulpicio is also demanding P650,000 (US$14,247) in damages “for the loss of goodwill and business standing” over proceedings by a board of maritime inquiry looking into the disaster and is suing Del Monte Philippines as well, the shipper of 10 tonnes of the pesticide endosulfan that were aboard, for P5.5 million, alleging Del Monte did not declare the toxic nature of the pesticide. Del Monte on the other hand, says Sulpicio breached its contract when it loaded the deadly cargo onto the Princess of the Stars instead of another ferry, the Princess of Paradise.

In the meantime, relatives of the victims say they have been left to fend for themselves. Families are complaining that Sulpicio Lines has been demanding voluminous documentary evidence before they can claim insurance and other damages. Others say they have been made to sign quitclaims that they will no longer pursue any court action against Sulpicio once they get the financial benefits. Sulpicio has denied this.

The signs that many believe led to the Princess of the Stars disaster are thus ominously familiar to most Filipinos: lax government regulations, inadequate warning equipment of government agencies, private-sector malpractice and a reactive Philippine Congress only jolted to act when there is a tragedy. Simply, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

The greater disaster was that nobody wants to assume the blame. God, as usual in the Philippines, has become the scapegoat.

With bloated bodies and the pesticide remaining trapped inside the capsized ferry, Congress began its probe, purportedly to come up with more effective maritime laws. This is on top of the investigation already being conducted by the Board of Marine Inquiry on the tragedy, the worst to hit the country in 10 years, involving the same shipping line. Sulpicio has had four major maritime disasters in which more than 5,000 have died. The loss of the Sulpicio-owned Dona Paz tragedy in 1988, which is considered to be the worst peacetime maritime disaster in the world, killed 4,000 people alone.

The litany of shortcomings in the Princess of the Stars disaster is staggering:

  • Commodore Amado Romillo, who is assisting in the investigation of the sinking, said that two of the ship’s four ballast tanks were empty, reportedly before the ship sailed into Typhoon Fengshen from Manila so that the ship could get more passengers aboard.

  • Sulpicio Lines reportedly did not have protection and indemnity insurance offering unlimited liability to passengers and crew including loss of wages, nor does it have such coverage on the rest of its fleet. Under the civil code, Sulpicio Lines should pay relatives P20,000 (US$438) for the transportation of each body and another P20,000 for burial expenses. This is aside from the P200,000 (US$4,380) insurance payment for each victim.

  • Romillo said the ship had only a single sideband radio aboard, and that there were times that no one was operating the radio, so that the Princess of the Stars, he said, did not receive a 10 a.m. weather bulletin about the typhoon on the day it set sail.

  • Del Monte Corp., the owner of the endosulfan, issued a statement that the pesticide was supposed to have been shipped in another vessel.

Already, the focus of the twin probes was to identify who to blame, and while finger-pointing was the order of the day, there are unverified reports that the captain of the ship, Florencio Marimon, may still be alive.

Only 56 people of more than 800 passengers and crews survived and only 161 bodies have been found so far. Of the recovered bodies, only a few have been positively identified by the victims’ families.

Corinne Laurie, whose London-based maid’s niece vanished in the tragedy, started an awareness campaign trying to help the survivors. “It's outrageous that so far it seems only 10 male crew members have been flown home, the rest are being held 'hostage', incommunicado,” Laurie wrote in an email “It's outrageous that these poor people have no voice.”

There is general skepticism that something positive will result from the congressional investigation. After all, it is not the first probe to have been conducted on sea tragedies and may not be the last. It does not help that the Board of inquiry probe could be discontinued if the shipping company secures a court injunction against it. Sulpicio Lines is claiming that the probe is invalid since jurisdiction over maritime incidents is reposed to the Maritime Industry Authority as provided for by law.

Two board of inquiry officials, Rear Admiral Benjamin Mata and Romillo, have decided to exit from the probe, they say, to preserve the integrity of the inquiry.

In the first congressional hearing Monday, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Atmospheric Services Administration (PAGASA) also bore the brunt of legislators’ fury for its failure to purchase Doppler radars to help predict typhoon movements. Although it has already a budget of about P500 million to purchase the radars, anomalies in the bidding process derailed the procurement, officials said.

“We could have avoided so much destruction,” Albay Representative Edcel Lagman said. The radar installations are supposed to be placed in Subic and Tagaytay in Luzon, Cebu in the Visayas, and Surigao del Sur and Tampacan in Mindanao .

Others blame the Philippine Coast Guard for the tragedy. “Sulpicio Lines carried its passengers to their death, but (the coast guard) also made horrendous errors and violations of its policies that could have prevented this tragedy,” Rep. Risa Hontiveros of the Akbayan party.

The coast guard is being taken to task for allowing the ill-fated ship to sail despite the typhoon signal. Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said even if MV Princess of the Stars had already sailed, the coast guard should have been able to stop it midway.

But PCG chief Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said that there was no way to communicate with the master of the ship since it had only the two-way VHF radio.

Lawmakers were also shocked to learn that it took only 15 minutes for the coast guard to inspect the 23,000-ton ferry before it set sail.

Former senator John Osmena, who chaired the Senate committee on public services, said such oversight in ship inspection is no longer surprising considering the coast guard’s lack of personnel. Ship companies take advantage of the coast guard’s incapacity by routinely violating maritime laws, he said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised that of the 800 people on board Princess of the Stars, some were actually not paying passengers. “The security inspection when you take a ship is not as tight as you when you take the airplane where they really inspect your ticket,” he said.

Osmena also added that he wasn’t surprised that Princess of the Stars sailed in the face of the typhoon warning. “These ship companies are already losing revenues due to decreasing number of passengerss. It is from the cargo they’re carrying where their major earnings come from; that was why the ship captain went on despite the warning.”

There is nothing new in all the revelations. What is certain is that these have been noted in past disasters, like a recurring theme with only the names of characters that have changed.