Death came early this year. The typhoon season has only just started and already, brightly coloured flop-flop rubber sandals are arriving on the coastlines of Sibuyan in the central Philippines. They are very small slippers because many children were among the 800 or so aboard the 1984-built 23,824 tonnes Sulpicio Lines ferry Princess Of The Stars that capsized on morning of June 21 in a typhoon known internationally as Fengshen and in the Philippines as Frank.
One can only say ‘or so’ because it is unlikely anyone will ever know exactly how many people were aboard. Passenger manifests are unreliable in a country where regulations are rarely enforced, even if they are supposedly adequate in the first place. In a grounding incident in 2007 a ferry had a manifest of a little more than two dozen people, the Philippine Coast Guard rescued more than a hundred. The true human cost of the Dona Paz disaster in 1987 remains unknown, except that it possibly exceeded 4,000.
Current known figures for the Princess Of The Stars are around 626 passengers, an unknown number of minors, and 212 crew. At the time of writing there are four confirmed dead and 34 known survivors.
Sulpicio Lines has a poor safety record. In addition to the Princess Of The Stars and the Dona Paz, other casualties include the Dona Marilyn in 1988 and the Princess of the Orient in 1998. The Philippine government has ordered it to stop operations and inspections of the company’s other vessels is underway. Volunteers against Crime and Corruption, VACC, has said it will file a class suit against Sulpicio Lines management.
The domestic ferry industry has a traditional safety problem: In 1994 the William Lines Cebu City collided with a Singaporean vessel, Kota Suria, and sank with the loss of 140 lives; Kimelody Cristy of Moreta Shipping caught fire and sank in 1995; in 1996: An overcrowded wooden ferry, ML Gretchen, capsizes close to shore of central Negros island, killing 54, including 31 children, and leaving 12 missing; Trans-Asia Shipping’s Asian South Korea, another ferry, sank in 1999;Maria Carmela, a ro-ro ferry owned by Montenegro Shipping, caught fire in 2002 with 2390 people on board of which 23 were confirmed dead and 27 missing;the wooden ferry Catalyn-D caught fire and sank in 2007 losing five lives out of 250 people on board. (A full list of incidents can be found HERE)
Despite the regularity of maritime incidents in Philippine waters there is no full-time independent maritime investigation agency in the Philippines. Marina, the country’s maritime regulatory body delegates its enforcement functions to the Philippine Coastguard, which allowed the vessel to leave Manila as the typhoon was approaching. Both agencies will conduct the investigation.
Philippine President Gloria Magapagal Arroyo has, as is usual in high-visibility incidents, ordered a board of inquiry to be convened but there is no legal requirement for any of its members to be qualified maritime casualty investigators and consists of Coast Guard officers, Marina officials and members or graduates of the government-own Philippine Merchant Marine Academy. A lawyer is required to be one of the members but he, or she, is not required to have expertise in maritime law.
The aim of the Board is to establish liability, safety issues are secondary. Despite that, not a single ferry company or ship owner has been brought to book in any incident in the Philippines.
Casualty investigation reports are not made accessible to the public.
International maritime investigators would like to bring the Philippines within the fold and help it develop a more realistic and effective investigative capability but the political will is lacking, which may not be unconnected with the high level connections between ferry companies, shipowners and the country’s legislators.
It is unlikely that the Philippines will respond to the new IMO code of conduct for maritime casualty investigation any time soon. Despite becoming a member in the mid-1960s the Philippines has yet to lodge a single maritime casualty investigation report with the IMO, as it is mandated to do for serious casualties under the terms of its membership, despite the recent election of a Filipino, Neil Ferrer, as IMO deputy secretary general.
Currently, fingers are being pointed in all directions. The vessel left Manila at about 8pm on Friday, 20th June as Typhoon Fengshen approached the islands. Storm Signal Number One, the lowest level warning, had been issued by the Pagasa, the country’s under-funded and under-equipped weather bureau.
Although the typhoon was not predicted to present a threat on the vessel’s route, typhoons are notoriously erratic. Although not expected to hit the main island of Luzon, by 11.30 the highest level warning was issued, Number Three, but by then the Princess Of The Seas was in the Visayas region still heading for Cebu.
The vessel was allowed to leave Manila because it was believed that she would only enter the periphery of typhoon, but the typhoon suddenly changed direction, putting the vessel directly in its path. It reached Sibuyan Island at around 7am.
According to reports, at about non on Saturday, 21st June, the ship’s main engine failed, but some survivors say the ship only slowed down as it encountered large waves. With winds of 73 miles an hour gusting up to 94 miles and hour the ship grounded off the coast of Sibuyan Island in Romblon province, tore a gash in her hull and took on water. The master, Captain Florencio Marimon, who is still missing, ordered all passengers to abandon the ferry, which capsized 15 minutes later.
Reportedly, few passengers were able to board the 14 liferafts, a number of which flipped over in the large swells and high winds, and about half were able to don lifejackets before jumping off the ship.
Later, police in the town of San Fernando in Romblon province reported that the vessel was two or three kilometres offshore, upside down off the coast of the town, a hole visible in the hull.
History suggests that the Princess Of The Stars tragedy will have little effect on the safety of Philippine ferry passengers or their crew. The Philippines will continue to ignore its obligations to the IMO and to the security of its travelling public because there isn’t the political will to do otherwise no matter how many children’s rubber slippers wash up on its beaches.
This post was written by Bob Couttie of Maritime Accident Casebook. Bob Couttie has written for a number of maritime industry publications, including the prestigious Lloyd’s List International daily newspaper and Lloyd’s Ship Manager magazine. His reportage on problems with ship’s officer certification examinations in the Philippines in the late 1990s influenced the adoption of computerized examinations for ship officers by the country’s Professional Regulatory Commission.