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2006: Maritime’s most disastrous year

December 30, 2006

IN MY PACK By Ruth G. Mercado
The Freeman 12/30/2006

2006 may well be remembered in the maritime industry as the and most catastrophic year since the 1987 sinking of the Doña Paz. With most accidents happening in Cebu and Eastern Visayas, the ghastly spate of tragedies ought to shed a straightforward assessment as to whether the outsourcing arrangement between Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority was effective or if there was faithful enforcement of maritime safety. It would also have laid bare impediments why regulations on wooden-hulled ships are taking so long to finalize and implement.

Sadly and surprisingly, maritime and Coast Guard, who are supposed to be in the business of tracking disasters, seem remotely aware of the horrific phenomenon. In a striking demeanor of nonchalance, there seems little care by authorities in taking a hard, serious look about why disasters are happening and happening successively.

Nevertheless, in the absence of an official list from Coast Guard and Marina, The Freeman has made its own tally based on investigative coverage. Nationwide, there were at least 15 maritime disasters and mishaps in 2006 including such high profile cases as fire onboard MV Asia Philippines, Superferry 12 and Heaven Star and the murder of a former Biliran governor onboard MV Cagayan Princess. Well-etched in maritime history are the oil spills in Guimaras and Misamis, the disappearance of MV Zarraga, cargo ship collision, and several incidents involving wooden ships in the sinking of motorized bancas in Cebu, Surigao and Pangasinan. At least 50 people have perished in all these accidents and while there are no confirmed figures, there is no quantifiable proof on the millions of pesos worth of property and marine life lost in the Guimaras and Misamis oil spills.

Marina administrator Vicente Suazo has since belittled the peculiar coincidence of accidents and dismissed speculations that a curse may haunt the maritime industry. In Cebu for instance, two ships caught fire at mid-sea exactly a month apart in almost the same circumstances. The MV Superferry 12 caught fire at its top decks in the morning of March 9 and exactly a month later on April 9, an early morning fire erupted on the top decks of MV Heaven Star. Initial inspection point to lighted cigarette as probable cause of both fires. While the Superferry 12 fire damaged all suites at the top deck, the Heaven Star fire burned eight life rafts and decommissioned 42 bunks.

Then while 19 were believed to have perished when motor banca SunJay sank off the coasts of Southern Leyte in January, some 19 were also presumed dead when motor banca Leonida II sank at Bilisan Island, Surigao in November.

Anti-oil pollution laws, which remain non-existent in this country, plague Guimaras and Misamis oil spills as the vessels carrying the bunker oil and oil debris are reportedly spoofed with spurious documents either of the vessel or its crew.

What may be a redeeming factor for the Coast Guard is their quick response in search, rescue and retrieval missions. But even then, finger pointing and blame passing between Marina and Coast Guard are quicker than emergency response. Marine inquiry proceedings are of little help. Proceedings drag on aimlessly as hearings are often postponed purportedly because lawyers have conflicting diary schedules.

Equally frustrating is how authorities circumvent their own laws. While laws specifically provide that accidents be heard and tried in the place where these happen, exceptions are made to transfer hearing venue with no plausible explanation. Hearings for the Superferry 12 that happened in Cebu and the oil spill that happened in Guimaras were both transferred to Manila. Can prosecution and indemnification be expected if lawyers and authorities who are supposed to uphold maritime laws and maritime safety, are now the very persons seeking exception from the law?

The disaster perhaps is not so much at sea. What is perhaps disastrously deadly is when present structures, systems and procedures of maritime and coast guard authorities are no longer effective. Until there is prosecution, until there is indemnification, until there is accident prevention, only then can Coast Guard and Marina claim they are relevant to the maritime industry and show they are sincere and faithful about their jobs.

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