Dead in the water
It’s been all of five years since the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars and, like other disasters involving Philippine vessels, there is yet no closure. The 23,824-ton ship left Manila at 8 a.m. on June 21, 2008, on its way to Cebu City, and sank off the coast of Sibuyan island in Romblon at noon, after being buffeted by waves whipped up by Typhoon “Frank.” Witnesses said the waves were as tall as mountains. It would later be established that the vessel owned by Sulpicio Lines Inc. and skippered by Capt. Florencio Marimon had set sail despite the bad weather after getting clearance from the Philippine Coast Guard. Some 860 people were on board.
In the flurry of activity that followed, initial rescue operations yielded only 52 survivors. Divers of the Philippine and US Navies circled the wreck, knocked repeatedly on the hull, and heard nothing. Soon after, the operational focus shifted to retrieval as corpses were found floating in the surrounding waters. Divers who managed to get into parts of the ship glimpsed luggage and bodies floating in the shell, but could not reach them. The dimensions of the tragedy became clear: Most of the missing were likely trapped inside the Princess of the Stars when it sank.
The magnitude of loss was horrific; among the dead were more than 20 children. Alexander de la Cruz lost his 8-year-old daughter, Angeline, who had just come back from the United States. Her last words to him were haunting: “I love you, Papa.” Other stories of loss were no less sorrowful. Jimmy Relativo was on board with his pregnant girlfriend, Roselyn Ligan, and they were on their way to inform her father of their nuptial plans. “I was thrown overboard and got separated from her,” Relativo said. “When I glanced back to the ship, she was gone.”
Over 300 bodies would be found, leaving more than 400 still missing. For many of those who lost loved ones in the sinking and have yet to find remains to bury or mourn over, the interminable wait drags on.
Early this month, Estella Jeli traveled to Romblon with officers and staff of the Public Attorney’s Office in the undimmed hope of finding the remains of her siblings, Jonil and Jackie, 17 and 7, respectively, when the Princess of the Stars went down. “We don’t mind [the long wait],” Jeli said. “We will not stop looking for them. All we want is to give them a decent burial.”
For years the hull of the vessel jutted out of the sea off Sibuyan—a grim reminder of what had transpired there. In 2011 the hull was finally hauled away, but half of the ship remains underwater, filled with secrets. Salvage divers have since gone down to recover what they could and surfaced bearing fragments of lives—a gold wedding ring, passports, seaman’s documents, a school ID, bank passbooks. “These only strengthen our hope of recovering the hundreds of bodies still down there,” said PAO chief Persida Acosta. The salvaging company has said it would take three to five years to open each cabin, a dangerous undertaking by itself.
Sulpicio Lines is no stranger to maritime disaster. In December 1987 its MV Doña Paz collided with the oil tanker MT Vector, killing 4,000 people. The incident remains on record as the worst maritime disaster in peacetime. Three other Sulpicio ships have also gone down. For the sinking of the Princess of the Stars, multimillion-peso law suits were filed, the Department of Justice supported the filing of charges of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide against Sulpicio vice president Edgar Go and the ship’s captain Marimon, who remains missing to this day. But, to the outrage of the grieving families, the Court of Appeals has cleared Go of the charges. In February 2010 Sulpicio Lines Inc. ceased to exist; unthinkably, the company changed its name to Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. An official said the move was a way of starting over.
The company has moved on, but the grieving families have no such luxury. Their loss remains ever open—a wound that does not heal. Five years after the fact, the wreck of the brightly named Princess of the Stars continues to remind Filipinos of the dangers they face during the length of the typhoon season, of the exceedingly slow grinding of the wheels of justice, of the closure lost at sea.