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2 Philippine Sea Losses Linked by Widespread Laxity

Times Staff Writer

It has been more than a decade since Romonita Kibir and more than 100 other Filipinos drowned when a passenger ferry went down off the northern coast of Mindanao in the Philippines.

There were no lifeboats or life rafts on board when water began rushing in through a crack in the ship’s hull on March 5, 1977. For many critical minutes, none of the ship’s officers warned the passengers that the ship was sinking. And when it finally became clear that the ship was doomed, the passageways were so jammed with people and cargo that many passengers were unable to get off.

The name of the ferry: Dona Paz. Its owner: the Sulpicio Lines.

Last Dec. 20, another Sulpicio Lines ferry, a 35-year-old vessel also named Dona Paz--renamed after the 1977 sinking--collided with the tanker Vector and sank off Mindoro Island in the Philippines. As many as 3,000 lives may have been lost in what has been described as the world’s worst peacetime sea disaster.

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Court records indicate that the two incidents have more in common than the vessels’ name and owner.

After the first Dona Paz went down, Kibir’s son, Diosdado, sued the Sulpicio Lines. A hearing was ordered, and after two years of testimony Manila Judge Herminio Mariano concluded that the owners had failed to provide lifesaving equipment, that the ship’s officers had failed to order the passengers to abandon ship and that the ship was not fit to put to sea at the time.

On June 13, 1979, Judge Mariano fined Sulpicio and ordered payment of exemplary damages. He said the action should “serve as a stern warning for common carriers to safeguard the life and limbs of their passengers.”

Few Penalties

But aside from these penalties, involving only a few thousand dollars in all, no action has been taken against the Sulpicio Lines, a firm that has since become the largest passenger carrier in the Philippines.

This is just one detail in the mass of information that has come to light since the December sinking that points up the chaos that characterizes maritime affairs in the Philippines.

In a country that consists of about 7,100 islands and half a million square miles of territorial waters, more than 16 million people a year--passengers on ships--are imperiled because of lax regulation and enforcement.

Documents, testimony and interviews with shipping sources show that passenger vessels routinely put to sea although dangerously overcrowded; that many ship’s officers are not qualified for their assignments; that coast guard inspections for seaworthiness are perfunctory at best, either because of corrupt practices or insufficient manpower; that no effective deterrent punishment is prescribed for negligent ship owners; that although 867 vessels have been involved in accidents in Philippine waters in the past six years, at the cost of thousands of lives, the government has not established effective rescue procedures.

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Outrigger Patrols

Much of the problem can be traced to the economic difficulties President Corazon Aquino inherited after her predecessor, Ferdinand E. Marcos, was deposed almost two years ago. The Philippine coast guard, for example, has so little money that its men patrol in the banca , the traditional Philippine outrigger.

Under a proposed reorganization, the central government was to take responsibility for regulating maritime affairs, but the idea was abandoned last year for political reasons, leaving most maritime-related agencies at sea over who is responsible for what.

“Right now, it’s almost pure anarchy,” one government official said, asking not to be identified by name. “I’m not saying the Dona Paz disaster could have been averted if the reorganization had gone through, but certainly we would have avoided the many more disasters that are almost sure to come.”

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Even the investigations and relief programs initiated after the December sinking are so disorganized that Ramon Mitra, the Speaker of the Philippine house and a staunch Aquino supporter, recently chastised the government.

‘Tainted Good Name’

Referring to the investigation into the December incident, Mitra said, “The probe is in a terrible mess, and however you look at it, it has probably already tainted whatever good name this administration has in the matter of its capability of running the government.”

There have been nearly a dozen hearings by Congress and the Board of Marine Inquiry, which is to determine who was at fault in the Dec. 20 sinking.

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Attorneys for many of the victims and for the companies that owned the ferry and the tanker have all complained that the board cannot be totally impartial because its five members are either active-duty or former coast guard officers and because, as prescribed by law, the board is headed by a coast guard deputy commandant.

Jose Sison, attorney for the tanker’s owners, the Vector Shipping Corp., said it would be next to impossible for the board to blame the coast guard itself for the collision.

“I feel that this board is no longer impartial,” he said.

Hearings Slighted

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Pablito Rojas, an attorney representing dozens of the victims’ families, said: “The investigation is being conducted by the Philippine coast guard and it was an official of the Philippine coast guard that cleared this voyage. I have serious misgivings about the progress and the fairness of this investigation.”

None of the hearings so far has determined exactly how many lives were lost in the sinking, which ship was at fault, who was at the helm of either ship at the time or whether either of the ships was seaworthy.

But, according to shipping sources, the information that has been brought out so far is ample evidence of the maritime nightmare that persists in the Philippines. Here are some of the highlights:

-- All 26 survivors who have come forward--24 from the ferry and two from the tanker--have said that the ferry struck the tanker, igniting the tanker’s cargo of gasoline and that, within a matter of minutes, fire covered the sea for miles, destroying both ships and killing most of the passengers and crew members.

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-- There has been no evidence suggesting which captain was responsible for the collision, but a surviving member of the tanker’s crew, Reynaldo Tarife, the second officer, testified last week that neither he nor the tanker’s captain, Celso Abella, was properly licensed. He said the captain had only a second officer’s license. Capt. Abella died in the fire. Tarife said he survived only because he jumped overboard immediately after the collision.

-- Surviving ferry passengers have signed sworn statements that the ferry’s captain, Eusebio Nazareno, was watching a video movie at the time of the collision and that two senior officers were drinking beer. Officials of the Sulpicio Lines insist that this is not true. They have conceded, however, that the ferry was not equipped with emergency radio equipment to transmit a distress signal.

-- Survivors said that no lifeboats or firefighting equipment were deployed after the collision. One survivor, Salvador Bascal, 44, a fisherman who managed to save himself and his daughter by swimming for an hour and a half, said that no one was in the pilot house after the collision and that the only passengers who survived were those who jumped from the stern within minutes of the collision.

-- Although the official death toll is at least 1,600, survivors have placed the number of passengers on board the Dona Paz at well over 3,000. Commandant Carlito Cunanan of the coast guard conceded in testimony that his men approved the ship’s manifest even though it listed several hundred fewer passengers than were actually on board. Shipping sources say coast guard officers often take bribes to permit overcrowding, which Cunanan conceded is routine at holiday times.

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-- Cunanan said the coast guard does not have the manpower to inspect all passenger vessels before departure, as it is required by law to do. He said its underpaid officers “are easily tempted” by bribes. But he emphasized that “we do not tolerate it,” and he pointed out that the lieutenant who was in charge of the Tacloban coast guard station, which cleared the overcrowded Dona Paz on Dec. 20, has been relieved of his command.

-- It is the coast guard that certifies the seaworthiness of Philippine ships, but coast guard officers have conceded that the service has nowhere near enough staff to inspect the 7,000 to 9,000 commercial vessels in the country on a regular basis. Attorneys representing the tanker’s owners said that two decks were added to the Dona Paz in the early 1980s, to accommodate additional passengers, but that the ship’s certificate of stability was dated 1980 and based on two decks, not the four it had when it went down.

-- The rescue operation has been described as a disaster in itself. Dario Fajardo, the coast guard deputy commandant, said the collision took place between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. but that the coast guard was not notified until 6:30 a.m. the next day. It then took 6 1/2 hours, he said, to notify the nearest coast guard station, on Mindoro, because the station has no radio. The survivors were rescued by a passing ship, the Don Claudio, whose captain, Melencio Barranco, brought it to within two miles of the burning wrecks.

-- Survivors said the Dona Paz did not go under for more than an hour after the collision. At least one, the fisherman Bascal, said he believed that more people could have been saved if there had been an organized rescue operation. He said that as he sought to swim through fire to safety he “saw that one by one people were sinking.”

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Officials close to the various investigations into the disaster say they fear that most of the facts in the case probably went down with the ships, which now lie under more than 1,700 feet of water in the Tablas Strait about 100 miles south of Manila.

Deputy Commandant Fajardo, who heads the board of inquiry, said the biggest obstacle is “the lack of eyewitness accounts.” But he insisted that the board will do its best.

Learn What Happened

“With the number of casualties, certainly, knowing what actually happened that night is important,” he said. “We also must try to learn from it, to adjust government policy so that we at least try to prevent this from happening again.”

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For the families of the victims, most of them poor people, the fight for compensation may be even more difficult than the board’s fight to get at the facts.

Attorney Rojas, who lost a brother, a sister-in-law and a nephew in the disaster, tried to file a $60-million class action suit against the owners of the two ships, but a local judge set filing fees for the suit at $300,000, which is permitted under Philippine law.

Rojas then asked the Supreme Court for permission to file the suit on behalf of “pauper litigants.” He said that “it is immediately evident that none of the plaintiffs, even with their combined resources, can afford to shoulder” the court fees set by the lower court. No action has been taken on his request.

National Concern

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“Because of the nature and magnitude of the incident,” Rojas said, “it transcends the parochial interest of the immediate relatives of the victims and has become a national concern. Indeed, the distressed relatives of the victims need all the help they can get.”

That they do was evident last week in the city of Tacloban, the port where the last victims boarded the Dona Paz on Dec. 20. Thousands of relatives crowded the shoreline as one coffin after another was taken off a Philippine navy ship. The coffins were carried past priests sprinkling holy water and women tossing flower petals, and placed on a flatbed truck to be moved downtown to a hall draped with a huge banner bearing the words, “This Must Never Happen Again.”

Lawyer Silvestre Dollete, who represented Diosdado Kibir in the suit against the Sulpicio Lines growing out of the 1977 incident, commented, “This tragedy should never have happened in the first place.”


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