In Greek myth, a tragedy is misfortune that cannot be avoided; it is fate becoming real. In contemporary reality, however, the word means the complete opposite: It is a crisis, a calamity, a catastrophe, that did not have to happen.
The collision of two ships in waters off Talisay City in Cebu last Friday is tragic precisely in this second sense. It resulted in a terrible loss of life (at this writing, 71 persons have been confirmed dead) and has led to an ecological calamity with economic consequences: Oil from one of the ships, the ferry M/V Thomas Aquinas, has reached some 12 coastal barangays in Mactan Island and threatens the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen. The worst part: All of this could have been avoided.
We mean this in a literal sense; according to both ship captains, who were among the 700-plus persons rescued from the site, each saw the other ship coming. Each said he had tried to contact the other ship; both said they did not receive a response.
As reported by Cebu Daily News, the captain of the cargo vessel M/V Sulpicio Express 7 reported the following sequence in the “marine protest” form he filed: “There was no response from sighted inbound vessel. I instructed to call the inbound vessel again, and still there was no response from the other inbound vessel.”
The captain of the Aquinas reported the following in his own marine protest form: “Despite several attempts on our part to call her attention that she was not following the traffic separation scheme she did not alter course to vacate the inbound lane which created the collision.”
It remains for the authorities to determine which ship was at fault, or whether they were both to blame. But the image of two ships about to collide, but unable to communicate with each other, is a haunting symbol of the Philippine maritime industry’s inadequate sense of safety consciousness.
How is it possible for such a complete communications breakdown to happen? Requiring seagoing vessels, especially a passenger ferry, to carry a backup communications system should not be prohibitively expensive. Requiring major sea vessels to hire only appropriately trained and regularly trained crew should not be seen as an unnecessary condition but a necessary investment in safety. And yet tragedies like last Friday’s collision continue to happen.
Blame the culture of “puwede na”—the frustrating habit of making do and muddling through, reinforced by a strange fatalistic notion that bad things happen to other people.
Consider the ship captains’ marine protests (both accessible on the Cebu Daily News website) again: There is no mention of slowing down—something even ordinary drivers are supposed to do when they realize they are on a collision course with another vehicle. There is no mention of alerting either ship’s crew, or of ordering a higher level of preparedness. Even more unfortunate, there is no mention of any attempt to alert passengers about possible danger ahead; until the investigation is complete, we cannot know how many lives would have been saved if all passengers had been instructed to wear life vests and ordered to move out of potential death traps.
The disturbing images we’ve seen on TV, of Navy divers looking for bodies trapped inside the Aquinas and then of the recovered bodies floating slowly—pop—to the surface: They make us wonder what else could have been done, to save the lives of those who pay good money just to put themselves at risk.
Almost three decades since the worst non-wartime sea disaster in history, the Philippine shipping industry continues to suffer from terrible, avoidable accidents. And unless something drastic is done, those accidents will continue. After the media attention will have moved to other news, some if not most shipping companies will return to normal practice. They will allow the overloading of vessels again; they will stop ensuring that the ratio of life vest to passenger is one-to-one again; they will discontinue checking on communications and other shipboard systems again; they will make do and muddle through, again.
Like the Fates of Greek myth, they will have our lives in their hands again.