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Suspicious lines

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:05:00 06/26/2008

Filed Under: Sulpicio ferry disaster, Maritime Accidents, Waterway & Maritime Transport

In the last two decades, four ships of Sulpicio Lines figured in catastrophic accidents, causing the death of several thousands. If an airline had that kind of record, it would have been hounded out of business. The question, then, that haunts the country?s traveling public: Why is Sulpicio Lines still in business?

The question sounds unfair?unless, that is, it is understood in the context of the fourth sinking, the capsizing of its flagship Princess of the Stars last week, at the height of Typhoon ?Frank.?

Why was the ship even out at sea? What we hear from Sulpicio Lines management and from the Philippine Coast Guard, thus far, suggests that the shipping line has a higher threshold of risk. That tells us that the line has learned the wrong lesson from history. And there lies the problem.

On Dec. 20, 1987, MV Doña Paz sank after a collision with oil tanker MT Vector. More than 4,000 people died, making it the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history. (The qualifier ?peacetime? does not mitigate the tragedy, it aggravates it. The only shipping disasters worse than the Doña Paz sinking were caused by wartime bombing.)

The legal struggle to hold Sulpicio Lines accountable for the Doña Paz tragedy has turned into an epic saga. To date, 21 years after the catastrophe, the true nature of Sulpicio Lines? accountability has not yet been established.

Less than a year after the sinking of Doña Paz, on Oct. 24, 1988, tragedy struck again. MV Doña Marilyn left Manila for Tacloban City, in the middle of a storm, despite the raising of the storm signal over Leyte from No. 2 to 3. When the ship capsized, at least 250 people died.

Ten years later, on Sept. 18, 1998, the line?s biggest ship, MV Princess of the Orient, left Manila for Cebu City?again in the middle of a storm, and again with terrible loss of life. Princess of the Orient sank near Manila Bay, sending at least 150 passengers to their death.

The final death toll from the sinking of Princess of the Stars has not yet been determined, but it may reach into the hundreds. The real tragedy is: Each one was avoidable.

As in 1988 and in 1998, Sulpicio Lines had a choice. To wait out a typhoon, or to brave the difficult weather. That it chose to set sail, despite the likelihood of very rough seas, despite the decision of other shipping companies to wait for better weather, means the lessons of Doña Marilyn and Princess of the Orient have not in fact sunk in. That Sulpicio Lines decided to risk the voyage means the tragedy of Doña Paz had failed to force the company to redefine the meaning of risk.

For the shipping line, the real risk was losing its franchise. Since it did not lose it, since it continued to do business despite the Doña Paz trauma and despite the Doña Marilyn and Princess of the Orient disasters, allowing Princess of the Stars to leave harbor even in the middle of a storm did not constitute a risk. Loss of lives (which the company habitually computes at an insurable amount of P200,000 per passenger) is a mere inconvenience.

As in the other disasters, especially the similarly circumstanced sinking of Doña Marilyn and Princess of the Orient, Sulpicio Lines will seek refuge from accountability and liability in the sinking of Princess of the Stars by resorting to that familiar, reliable rationalization: force majeure.

Force majeure? Looks like force of habit to us.

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