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Talking the Ferry Disaster Away

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[Photo of Flooded Metro Manila]Many believe the lax enforcement of maritime regulations is behind the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy that left 56 survivors and 173 fatalities. There is no foresight to speak of and government response, critics say, was just a knee-jerk reaction.

It was straight out of a Hollywood movie only this time, the deaths were real. On 18 June, Wednesday, the 23,824-ton MV Princess of the Stars left Manila for a 22-hour trip to Cebu. On board were 724 passengers, 111 crew members, and 29 non-crew personnel. But the vessel, owned by Sulpicio Lines Inc. (SLI), never reached its destination.

Typhoon Frank (international codename: Fengshen), originally monitored by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) to be headed towards the Bicol region, veered towards Mindoro instead. It passed directly over Romblon province and the Panay region, right in the path of the ill-fated boat. (Surprisingly, other vessels of its size were also allowed to sail that day.)

On 21 June, Saturday, SLI got word from the 2nd mate that the captain had given the order to don life jackets and to prepare to abandon ship. The 24-year old ferry sent a distress signal later that day and capsized at around 6pm three kilometers from Sibuyan Island.

Still, RP President Gloria Arroyo left for a 10-day visit with US President George Bush late in the evening that same day.

Bloody Sunday

Manila woke up Sunday morning to reports of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars. The story overshadowed the bigger damage that Frank wrought nationwide.The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) said the typhoon affected about 4.13 million persons from 49 provinces in 15 of the country’s 16 regions. The death toll excluding that from the ferry disaster is 557 with 826 injured and 26 missing.Estimated damage to homes reached 13.32 billion pesos (US$297 million), to agriculture, 7.54 million pesos (US$168,659), and to infrastructure, 5.78 million pesos(US$129,291). Four hundred fifty-eight schoolbuildings worth 303 million pesos (US$6.77 million) were also destroyed.

print ed: 08/08

The Department of Agriculture, meantime, said about 3% of this year’s farm output (worth around four billion pesos) had been lost to Frank.

Sue Them and Blame God

SLI blamed PAGASA for not giving timely information and even filed a 4.45 million peso-suit (US$ 99, 440) for gross negligence and incompetence against the agency.

On 9 July, the shipping company also sued Del Monte Philippines Inc. for 5.5 million pesos (US$123,027) in damages for deceit and non-disclosure of its toxic cargo and for moral and exemplary damages. SLI also went to court to ask that the Board of Marine Inquiry probe be stopped, but was denied.

The government discovered on 24 June that 10 metric tons of endosulfan were on board the sunken ferry after Del Monte Philippines wrote to the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority. The pesticide, used to prevent discoloration in pineapples, was put in plastic bags tied only with twister wires and enclosed in a 40-foot container, in a submerged part of the ship.

During one of the hearings, SLI lawyer Arthur Lim read the company’s so-called marine protest, filed before the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). “I am... filing this marine protest to... publicly... protest against the wind and waves and the fortuitous event or act of God, particularly Typhoon ‘Frank,’ that was the cause of the... loss of our good ship.”

SLI classified the Del Monte shipment as transit cargo because there were no stickers identifying it as highly toxic. The shipping firm claimed that Del Monte did not inform them the shipment was hazardous. The pesticide was originally scheduled to go onboard the Princess of Paradise but was loaded onto the Princess of the Stars instead because it was scheduled to leave earlier.

The PCG, for its part, said it did not know about the endosulfan because SLI did not inform them about it. The coast guard added they did not conduct inspections on every cargo unless they were asked to.

Del Monte, for its part, promised to aid in the government’s environmental rehabilitation efforts in the event of an endosulfan leakage. Other toxic cargoes in the vessel were also identified.

Grim Aftermath

Fears of endosulfan leakage prompted the Bureauof Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) to declare a fishing ban on 1 July. The contamination scare brought down the price and sales of fish even in far-off Metro Manila, which actually gets its supply from Palawan. The Department of Health also issued a ban on eating fish from Romblon.

As the ferry tragedy horrified the nation, many were unaware that the fishing ban had sparked a crisis in San Fernando, Romblon. Families dependent on fishing could no longer afford to send their children to school, let alone buy food. Town mayor Nanette Tansingco said SLI had not extended any financial assistance to its residents, who could not fish for as long as the ferry remained in their waters. They are now thinking of filing a damage suit against Sulpicio.

Local officials had to take drastic yet creative measures to offset the threat to their towns’ livelihood. A week after the ban was imposed, the Cadiz City government in Negros Occidental laid 500 kilos of grilled seafood on a 50-meter long table. The free lunch was meant to prove that fish is still safe for human consumption. A thousand people ate the fish in just 15 minutes. Legazpi City in Albay hosted a similar affair.

On 22 July, the BFAR lifted the fishing ban on San Fernando town, limiting the restricition to a five-kilometer radius around the ferry. Markers were placed to identify the banned area and periodic tests will conducted to test the water for contamination.

The government, meantime, ordered SLI to recover the bodies and the toxic cargo immediately. The government was even keen on securing SLI’s assets to force it to fund the operation. Titan Salvage, a US-based company, was hesitant at first to join the retrieval. After all, the 350 million peso (US$7.82 million) insurance of the sunken ship was pittance compared to the US$50 million (343.2 million yuan) to US$100 million (686.44 million yuan) needed to salvage the ferry. Just recently,

SLI signed a US$7.5 million (51.48 billion yuan) contract with Titan to retrieve toxic cargo from the Princess of the Stars. SLI said there also plans to remove bunker fuel and hundreds of bodies trapped inside the ferry and even to refloat the wreck.

Too Little, Too Late?

The government went to damage control mode right after the tragedy.

President Arroyo publicly berated the PCG chief for allowing the ferry to sail. A search for survivors was immediately set despite poor weather conditions. The Manila Coast Guard chief was relieved of his duties. The President also supported calls from House allies to conduct a separate Congressional hearing on the accident.

On 23 June, the Maritime Industry Authority grounded all SLI vessels.

The Coast Guard issued a directive saying that vessels would not be allowed to sail when storm signal number one—or higher—is raised. Vessels may only leave port to seek shelter and should have no passengers or cargo on board.

Senator Francis Escudero pushed for the immediate passage of bills that would rehabilitate and modernize the PCG and the PAG-ASA.

Department of Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, meantime, announced there would be no rice shortage because of government’s commitment to import 2.7 million tons of rice this year.

Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Marianito Roque ordered the release of 33 million pesos (US$2.97 million or 19.19 million yuan) for emergency employment assistance especially for displaced workers in Western, Central, and Eastern Visayas.

The NDCC reported the government had provided assistance amounting to more than 125 million pesos (US$2.79 million) in the form of food packs and other non-food items like medicine and even the repair and clearing of schools. Power was restored in most of the affected areas.


Churches, socio-civic groups, and schools also engaged in relief activities.

Foreign governments and NGOs have donated US$1.09 million (7.48 million yuan) in cash and US$1.16 million (7.96 million yuan) in kind. China matched the US$100,000 (686,400 yuan) given by the US. Donations also came in from Japan, Thailand, Holland, South Korea, and billionaire Bill Gates.

Despite widespread criticisms over its apparent lack of foresight in averting disasters, the Arroyo administration still managed to get positive feedback from Andrew MacLeod of the UN resident coordinator’s office. “The government was able to handle it very well,” he said.

MacLeod was further impressed with the corporate social responsibility demonstrated by two of the country’s largest telecommunications firms, who partnered with the Philippine National Red Cross to give families of the ferry victims free telephone use. They even gave away water, rice, and other relief goods.

Bad Call

In the aftermath of the tragedy, calls mounted for the President to cut short her US trip and come home immediately. Arroyo drew flak for deciding to finish her US visit despite assurances from the Palace that it was in constant communication with her. The President came home on 1 July, more than one week after the typhoon, and quickly began the rounds of visits to affected areas, distributing relief goods.

Unknown to many, there were other vessels that sunk during the typhoon. The casualties were bigger than those of the Princess of the Stars. Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the 119 fishing vessels hit by Frank left 324 dead and 804 missing. (There are 354 survivors.)

For now, what is even more tragic is that lessons from past mishaps seem to have been forgotten. Apparently, more and better pro-active measures from authorities to avert more disasters at sea are lacking. And this does not help the families of the victims come to terms with their loss, especially since they know the death of their loved ones could have been avoided.

print ed: 08/08


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