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Another sea tragedy

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:34:00 06/23/2008

Filed Under: Typhoon Frank, Maritime Accidents, Waterway & Maritime Transport, Disasters (general)

It has happened again: A ship was given clearance to sail despite a warning that a typhoon would hit the general area where it would pass through within 24 hours. Waves ?as tall as mountains? lashed the ship, MV Princess of the Stars, and sank it off Sibuyan Island in Romblon province. About 800 of the more than 862 persons aboard the ship were missing as of Sunday and were believed to have drowned.

If all the 800 missing passengers are finally declared dead, the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars would go into the records as the second-worst sea disaster in the Philippines. The country?s?and the world?s?worst peacetime sea disaster was the collision of the MV Dońa Paz with MT Vector in Tablas Strait between the islands of Mindoro and Marinduque on Dec. 20, 1987 in which more than 4,000 people died.

One question being asked is why MV Princess of the Stars was allowed to sail despite the warning that Typhoon Frank (international code name: Fengshen) would hit the general area where it would pass on its way to Cebu City. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo asked Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo, Coast Guard chief, this question and he said that ships the size of the ill-fated vessel were not covered by storm warnings issued by the weather bureau. If this is true, then the guidelines should be revised to cover all vessels regardless of size. It is always better to err on the side of caution than take risks. We are talking of the lives of people here.

Another question: Why did the Coast Guard not exercise extra caution in this case, considering that Sulpicio Lines, which owns MV Princess of the Stars, has figured in many sea disasters? MV Dońa Paz was a ship of the Sulpicio Lines. So were MV Dońa Marilyn, which sank on Oct. 24, 1988, and MV Princess of the Orient, which went down on Sept. 18, 1998.

MV Dońa Marilyn was allowed to sail for Tacloban City although Storm Signal No. 3 had been raised over Leyte. Battered by huge waves caused by Typhoon Unsang, it capsized and 250 lives were lost. It was the second worst maritime disaster in the Philippines since 1987.

Another Sulpicio ship, MV Princess of the Orient, lashed by the strong winds of Typhoon Guding on Sept. 18, 1998, sank near the mouth of Manila Bay and 150 lives were lost. It was the third worst sea disaster in the country.

Given the bad record of Sulpicio Lines, why did the authorities not exercise extra caution before giving MV Princess of the Stars clearance to sail?

Another question: Was the ship 100-percent seaworthy? Considering its size and its relative large passenger capacity, shouldn?t it have been rigorously inspected to determine whether it could safely negotiate a sea voyage?

Regional Coast Guard officer Cecil Chen said that with a typhoon approaching, the ship was radioed to take shelter and its captain tried to do that. However, the engine failed and the ship was dead in the water, right in the path of the typhoon with its 170 kph winds.

If Sulpicio Lines were a human being, it would be considered a ?recidivist.? It has not been sanctioned and made to pay enough for the big toll in terms of lives lost in the three worst maritime disasters in the country since 1987. On Oct. 29, 1988 the Board of Marine Inquiry absolved Sulpicio Lines of any responsibility in the sinking of the MV Dońa Paz and found MT Vector at fault. In 1992, a Manila regional trial court held Sulpicio Lines ?solely responsible? for the accident and ordered it to pay P1.2 million to the heirs of two victims. In 1996, the Court of Appeals absolved Sulpicio Lines of any liability and laid the blame on Vector and Caltex Philippines, which had leased the tanker. In September 2006 the Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling ordering Sulpicio Lines to pay P14.9 million to the family of an engineer who died in the sinking of the MV Dońa Paz.

In the case of MV Dońa Marilyn, the Board of Marine Inquiry said the disaster was due to force majeure or ?an act of God,?? and held no one responsible. In September 2000, the Department of Justice dropped the criminal case against Sulpicio Lines in connection with the sinking of MV Princess of the Orient, saying that it could not be held criminally responsible for the accident.

What all these cases, including the latest tragedy, indicate is that there is a very low regard for the value of human life, a very loose and relaxed set of rules on clearances for sailing, and possible irregularities in the issuance of such clearances.

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