Jul 052008
 

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Poor training, questionable communications, stability and God have come into the firing line in the search for someone to blame for the capsize of the Sulpicio Lines ro-ro passenger ship Princess Of The Stars, which came to grief during Typhoon Fengshen with the loss of more than 700 lives.

Currently the 24,000 tonne vessel is resting inverted on a reef, straddling a small trench off the coast of Sibuyan island with her hull intact. Many, if not the majority of the 700 or so bodies of crew and passengers apparently remain inside her. Efforts to recover the bodies were suspended when it was discovered that 10 tonnes of highly toxic endosulfan is inside a container on the car deck.

Philippine Vice President Noli De Castro, a former television presenter, among others has speculated in the media that the ship’s master, Captain Florencio Marimon, is alive and in hiding, possibly in a safehouse operated by Sulpicio Lines. There appears to be little to justify the claim and a body matching his description has been recovered but its identity has not been confirmed..

As yet, there is no information on what, if any, hard evidence is being sought from vessel concerning the integrity of the stern ro-ro door. The Princess of the Stars was built before the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster and it is unclear to what extent safety measures based to that incident have been incorporated into Princess of the Stars. Of particular interest is the integrity of the ferry’s stern ro-ro door, a possible source of water ingress that may have lead to the listing that finally capsized her – once water is on the car deck a vessel such as this is as good as lost.

Questions have, however,been raised about the adequacy of cargo lashing, which lead to the listing and deliberate beaching of another Philippine ferry in 2007.

A project to photograph the faces of the victims in situ for later identification by relatives has been abandoned, the National Bureau of Investigation has barred public viewings of victims remains and an identification team from Interpol is now in Manila to use DNA to identity the dead.

It is understood that Titan Salvage may be contracted to refloat the ship. Titan recently refloated the grounded ferry Arcangel in Cancum, Mexico.

Earlier, Philippine news media cited an unnamed government maritime official claiming that the ship’s owner, Sulpicio Lines, did not want the ship refloated in order to declare a total loss. Plans to put holes in the hull to recover bodies and toxic cargo had been abandoned with the decision to refloat her.

While the refloating may bring more evidence to light regarding the cause of the catastrophe the process will take up to three months. The Philippine Coastguard, however, has undertaken to deliver a final report to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo within 15 days and the seven-strong Board of Marine Inquiry, BMI, established under a law issued in the 1970s, will probably deliver its decision on who is liable for the incident within 30 days or so.

The Philippines has no permanent or independent maritime casualty investigation agency. Maritime casualty investigation reports are not made publicly available and the Philippines has not lodge an investigation report with the International Maritime Organisation since it became a member in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines has blamed God, or, rather an act of God, for the tragedy and in the absence of a local address for the Almighty is suing the country’s weather bureau, PAGASA, instead.

While Sulpicio maintains that PAGASA gave inaccurate data on the path of the typhoon, the weather bureau says that it fell within the standard deviation of 180 kilometres.

Sulpicio Line’s owner and first vice president told the BMI that company didn’t know the current Coast Guard regulations which prohibit vessels of any size from travel when public storm signal 3 and 4 are raised within the point of origin, route and destination. Under rules set out in 1998, which Sulpicio was following, the Philippine Coast Guard had the responsibility of plotting routes of storms and disseminate the information to subordinates and ship owners. The regulations were changed last year.

One of the crew members who survived the tragedy, apprentice engineer Phel Gilig, told the BMI that in the four months he had been aboard he had not participated in any abandon ship droill because he was ‘always on duty’, didn’t know the layout of the vessel or his role in an emergency and didn’t take notice of the ship’s station bills.

One other seafarer had testified that orders to prepare to abandon ship were given at 11.30am and the order to abandon given ten minutes later.

With the end of the enquiry scheduled for next week, the BMI has yet to get testimony for other seafarers who survived and may move the enquiry to Cebu

The Princess of the Stars sailed allegedly with two of its four ballast tanks empty. One member of the BMI, Amado Romillo, has speculated publicly that this would have resulted in poor stability, a claim disputed by others on the grounds that the extra ballast was not necessary because of the cargo.

He also claims that the ship had only one single side-band radio for communication with the ports and the ship could not receive a 10pm weather report on the day it left, and radio communications were unattended at certain time. Sulpicio officials, however, say that they were in touch by cellphone.

Reportedly, the government is considering taking over Sulpicio Lines. Such a move would require the approval of the country’s legislature and is unlikely to get approved given the close ties between a number of members of congress and the senate and ferry-owning families and operators.

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