TWENTY one years since the sinking of the M/V Doña Paz between Mindoro and Marinduque after colliding with an oil tanker, considered as the world’s worst ferry disaster and the worst peace-time maritime disaster in history, it would seem that implementing safety standards at sea in the Philippines continues to be spotty and beset with problems.
At the height of typhoon Frank’s fury last weekend, another Sulpicio Lines passenger ferry, M/V Princess of the Stars, sank off the coast of Romblon Saturday evening, leaving at least 70 people dead and hundreds more missing. The 23,824-ton Cebu-bound ship left Manila on the night of June 20 after it was given clearance to sail despite a public storm signal already raised in the general direction where it was headed.
The recent disaster is yet one more blot in the woeful maritime history of the country, as well as of Sulpicio Lines, one of the country’s largest shipping companies — and possibly the most controversial given its record of sea mishaps. In the wake of the M/V Doña Paz tragedy where 4,340 people drowned, one of its vessels, the M/V Marilyn, capsized during a storm in central Philippines in October 1988, resulting in the death of about 500 people.
Ten years later, a storm-battered M/V Princess of the Orient sank in Batangas waters and left 70 dead and 80 others missing. The ship was a replacement to the then largest vessel owned by Sulpicio Lines, the 191-meter long Filipina Princess, which continued to sail the lucrative Manila-Cebu route back in the early 1990s despite navigating only on one of two engines — a condition that prompted the Philippine Coast Guard to declare it unfit for travel in February 1993.
Another Sulpicio ship, M/V Princess of the World caught fire at sea in July 2005, though there were no reported casualties.
In 1993, the PCIJ published a three-part series tackling the perils of shipping, highlighting the issue of safety, which a former administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) no less acknowledged then as the “most neglected aspect of the industry.”
Read the PCIJ report:
- Part 1: Liner Limps on a Lone Engine
- Part 2: Philippine Shipping is a Maritime Disaster
- Part 3: Coast Guard is Ineffective
It was the case then, yet it appears to be so up to now.
That is not to say though that compliance with safety standards has not improved over the last two decades under a deregulated shipping industry. But the occurrence of major tragedies such as the recent sinking of the Princess of the Stars has only served to underscore what problems remain to this day, some of which were identified in the PCIJ story — ageing and badly maintained ships, the absence of minimal safety navigational aids like lighthouses, and lack of competent seafarers, many of whom are lured to work in more well-paying shipping companies abroad.
Back in the early 1990s, a Japanese study already pointed out that at least 700 lighthouses were needed to illuminate the country’s major waterways. At the time of the PCIJ report, existing lighthouses were only half that number. At present, the number has reportedly increased but to no fewer than 500, many in very poor conditions.
The spotlight fell as well on the Coast Guard, whose authority to ensure sea safety continues to be hampered by poor funding and badly trained — and some charge, corrupt — personnel. The Coast Guard now gets almost P2 billion from the national budget, five times the allocation it used to receive when it was still under the armed forces. Back then, a commodore estimated that at least P1 billion is needed to make the Coast Guard an effective regulatory agency. Today, that amount is not even enough as more than P1.3 billion go to cover the cost of personal services, mainly salaries and allowances.
What the PCIJ also found out then was the weak and fragmented authority of the Coast Guard when it came to enforcing safety standards as its decision in the controversy surrounding the Filipina Princess was set aside by the Department of National Defense. Ordering a second review, the DND argued that the Coast Guard’s decision to ban the ship from traveling was “unjustly” issued and without due process. Sulpicio had asserted the safety of its ship, whose navigational record in the last eight months that time included suffering at least six breakdowns at mid-sea, one lasting 20 hours.