By: Our Correspondent

phil-princessofAfter 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.