Shape up, or ship out
Seven years ago almost to the day, the 23,824-ton MV Princess of the Stars sailed from Manila on a 22-hour trip to Cebu City, carrying 851 passengers, including 121 crewmen, 31 infants and 20 children.
Despite storm warnings, the Philippine Coast Guard gave the vessel owned by Sulpicio Lines clearance to sail. On June 21, 2008, the ferry, tossed by huge waves churned up by the ruinous Typhoon “Frank,” keeled over, and sank.
Only 32 survived the tragedy, with the remains of 300 more recovered later, while over 400 remained missing.
Subsequently, 135 civil cases were lodged in Manila and Cebu by families of the victims against Sulpicio Lines, but until now no one has been held criminally liable for the disaster, with the Supreme Court itself affirming in 2009 a Court of Appeals decision not to indict Edgar S. Go, Sulpicio’s vice president, for reckless impudence resulting to multiple homicide.
Even the ship’s skipper, Capt. Florencio Marimon, among the accused in the civil case, has remained conveniently missing.
No thanks to a feeble judicial system, the relatives of the ferry sinking victims can only seethe in rage and frustration as the killers of their kin go scot-free.
There’s also scant comfort in the decision of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) to cancel the franchise of Sulpicio Lines, now Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., to carry human passengers and limit its operations to cargo shipment.
In a brazen act that the Public Attorneys’ Office described as “unconscionable,” the renamed company also offered a paltry P10,000 per family instead of the full insurance claims which, according to Republic Act No. 9295, or the Domestic Shipping Development Act of 2004, amount to P200,000 in case of death plus P20,000 for burial expenses.
This is not the first time that Sulpicio Lines became involved in maritime disasters; in fact, observers suggest that its name change was meant to deodorize a fetid reputation associated with negligence that may be behind four of its vessels sinking under ignominious circumstances in the last 30 years.
Its most notorious case, the 1987 collision of MV Doña Paz with the oil tanker MT Vector, had even landed the Philippines in world headlines as the worst maritime disaster in peacetime, with over 4,000 fatalities.
Sulpicio’s MV Doña Marilyn sank in October 1988, claiming 150 lives; its MV Boholana Princess went down in December 1990 though no casualties were reported, and its MV Princess of the Orient sank in September 1998, with the loss of another 150 lives.
And lastly, the Princess of the Stars, in 2008.
It needs to be asked: How could such a dismal record by a franchise meant to serve the public go unchallenged for so long? Why must it take 30 years and the cumulative loss of at least 4,300 lives by Sulpicio Lines alone for the Marina to take action? Could a more timely and preemptive government action have saved more lives, especially in a country of over 7,000 islands, where interisland ferries—far cheaper than plane fare—are the most popular means of transport?
Despite the sheer number of people regularly taking the ferry, and the number of typhoons that make sea travel a perilous risk, how could the PCG be so quick to give often decrepit and ill-maintained sea vessels the all-clear to set sail? Do they even check the passengers’ manifest to prevent overloading? And who’s in charge of checking if these vessels are seaworthy at all?
The training of the ship’s officers and crew must also be paramount, and not just because the Philippines deploys the most number of seafarers in the world, and therefore has a reputation to uphold. In the event of maritime catastrophes, it is these men who stand between the hapless passengers and certain death. In the case of Princess of the Stars, survivors said the captain gave the order to abandon ship too late. Are our maritime schools up to par, or are they diploma mills eager to crank up more profits with the next batch of would-be OFWs?
With the onset of the rainy season, the expected onslaught of at least 20 typhoons in the coming months and the rush back to Manila of thousands of students from across the country, it is imperative to take the lessons of the Princess of the Stars tragedy to heart. Corporate greed will always be the sea monster waiting to devour the unwary. It’s definitely time for concerned government agencies to shape up—or ship out.
Your daily dose of fearless views
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.