Jul 222008

By coincidence, this week could be dubbed ‘Ferry Cropper Week”. In the Philippines the Board of Marine Inquiry is to release its report on the sinking of the Sulpicio Line’s ferry Princess Of The Stars, which cost more than 700 lives, while the US National Transportation Safety Board is to release its report of the grounding of the sternwheeler Empress of the North.

Since we’re talking of ferries let’s add the Queen of the North report released by Canada’s Transport Safety Board earlier this year.

The Queen of the North grounding and sinking took two years of investigations which included recovery of physical evidence such as computer hard drives from the ship’s bridge and recording of radio traffic, and video from ROV examination of the sunken vessel. The report is backed up by a video simulation of the vessel’s voyage and sinking.

Investigating the Empress of the North grounding has taken a little over a year. It, too, will involve the examination of physical evidence.

The Philippines BMI has taken around one month, has taken statements from some 28 persons, including two seafarers who were travelling on the ferry as passengers, but neither asked for nor secured physical evidence as to how the vessel capsized, took on water and capsized.

There was certainly the opportunity to gather physical and photographic evidence from the Princess of the Stars. Divers went aboard her to photograph the faces of the dead in a misguided attempt to have them identified by relatives seeking their lost. The project was stopped following advice that the photographs would not be useful in identification and would have been disturbing those those trying to discover whether their loved ones were alive or dead.

That photographic equipment could have been put to good use in the cargo hold, where cargo is said to have shifted in the storm and caused the ship to list. They might have been useful in the area of the rear ro-ro ramp.

Divers were taken off the vessel following the discovery of a highly toxic cargo of endosulfan in a container but an examination could have been done using ROVs, which certainly are available in the Philippines.

Much might have been learned by simulating the last voyage of the Princess of the Stars in a bridge simulator, of which there are several in Manila, another in Cebu, and three in Subic Bay. It woiuld have provided a fairly accurate representation of conditions at the time, far more accurate that witness testimony – only witness in the BMI inquiry, for instance, correctly identified the ship’s list as to port, everyone else recalled it as starboard.

An engineering simulation of the forces acting upon the ship, something which might have been done at University of the Philippines, would, too, have told us much about the mechanics of the capsize and sinking.

Given the time the BMI has taken, and the lack of substantive investigation and forensic techniques, sadly it can be little more than a superficial exercise, no matter how well meaning the intent of those comprising the board.

There are very meaningful differences between the BMI and those agencies which investigated the Empress of the North and the Queen of the North incidents. These last incidents were investigated by full time agencies of relative independence, manned by professional, trained, qualified maritime casualty investigators. The Philippines has no such agency.

Determining the underlying, root, cause of an incident and addressing it will save more lives than determining who is at fault.

What is needed is a professionalised agency whose investigation is solely concerned with the safety aspects of an incident, who can interview witnesses without them having the sword of liability hanging over them, and with the capability to gather forensic evidence, and whose reports are publicly available on the internet.

While such an agency’s investigations must, as a matter of safety, take precedence over other investigations its recommendations do not need the force of law, they have the force of public embarrassment – a ferry company that doesn’t implement recommendations made to it will certainly be grist for the media mill.

Liability should be determined solely by the courts with the force of law behind them. Boards of Marine Inquiry, or their equivalent, have largely been abandoned around the world and the Philippines should follow suit.

The BMI’s function of establishing liability would be better replaced by an Admiralty court under the Supreme Court, with specialist judges and attorneys trained in maritime law.

Given the strategic economic and social importance of the domestic shipping industry in the Philippines, it’s difficult to argue against such changes.

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