Sinking of ferry in Philippines highlights appalling safety record

The sinking of the ferry Princess of the Stars is a marine accident of tragic human proportions but it is also an appalling safety statistic that adds to a sorry record to which the Philippines should feel acutely ashamed

Gulf News

The sinking of the ferry Princess of the Stars is a marine accident of tragic human proportions but it is also an appalling safety statistic that adds to a sorry record to which the Philippines should feel acutely ashamed.

Furthermore, the stricken vessel was operated by Cebu-based Sulpicio Lines, a company with unenviable experiences of previous accidents that claimed mass loss of life, including the world's worst!

The 193 metre-long, Japanese built, 23,824 GRT seven-storey ferry was apparently compliant in the safety aspects of its certification. Since it was only certificated to operate within Philippine waters, a non-mandatory ISM system had been implemented onboard with the last intermediate audit carried out (by Bureau Veritas) in August 2007.

These factors indicate a satisfactory regulatory situation (at least at the time of the last survey or audit) but they also underline the fact that it is the forces of the elements are the overriding factor in the conduct of seafaring.

Moreover, no matter what certificates are in place, if foolish operational decisions are taken, then all of the compliance and all of the regulation counts for nothing!

The disaster also reminds us that the Philippines has an appalling record of safety for ferry accidents and despite the posturing of politicians and the promises to conduct effective boards of enquiry, if previous trends are to be followed there is little likelihood that things will change.

This horrifying record demonstrates that the time is certainly long overdue for the Philippines maritime authorities to get a grip on safety and to properly regulate its ship operators.

Sulpicio has already gone on record as blaming the weather for this latest disaster to one of its ships and it has accused the Philippines weather bureau, PAGASA to be negligent in being late in reporting a course change by Typhoon Fengshen.

Such a defence is astonishing - typhoons are notoriously unpredictable and in the face of even a general threat that severe weather is in the region, a responsible ferry operator should seriously consider not putting to sea with passengers. Furthermore, if that operator has had previous experiences of mass loss of life then a prudent approach should be engrained within its safety management ethos and also in the light of studies made regarding the dangers to ro-ro vessels in bad weather - particularly following the sinking of the Estonia in 1994.

Will the Princess of the Stars turn out to be just another horrifying statistic or will it prove to be a watershed for marine safety in that region - time will only tell.

The writer is a marine consultant based in Dubai.

fast facts

Worst disasters

- 1987: the ferry Dona Paz sank with the loss of 4,340 following collision with a tanker - this ranks as the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster. This vessel was operated by Sulpicio.
- 1988: the ferry Dona Marilyn (sister of the Dona Paz) sank during a typhoon, with a death toll of 250; This vessel was also operated by Sulpicio.
- 1994: the ferry Cebu City, operated sank in Manila Bay after colliding with a cargo ship claiming 140 lives.
- 1995: the ferry Kimelody Cristy sank off Fortune Island, southwest of Manila, following a fire. 43 persons were lost.
- 1997: the pleasure craft King Rogers, sank in bad weather with the loss of 7 persons.
- 1998: 150 people perished when the ferry Princess of the Orient ferry sank off Batangas province south of Manila. This ferry was also operated by Sulpicio.
- 1999: the ferry Asia South Korea sank in central Philippines' waters killing at least 44 people.
- 2000: the ferry Our Lady of Mediatrix caught fire following the detonation of two bombs onboard. The Philippines' government blamed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
- 2000: the wooden-hulled Annahada ferry capsized off Jolo Island. At least 56 people perished.
- 2002: the ro-ro ferry Maria Carmela caught fire and was gutted with the loss of 25 one hour from its destination of Lucena in Quezon province.
- 2003: the wooden-hulled merchant launch San Nicolas, that was carrying 203 passengers, collided with a ferry off the coast of Corregidor Island during torrential rain and near zero visibility. 39 people from the wooden vessel perished.
- 2004: the WGA Superferry 14 was gutted by fire after a bomb alleged to Al Qaida-linked extremists exploded killing 116.
-2007: Catalyn-D (another wooden-hulled ferry owned and operated by San Nicolas Shipping) caught fire and sank off Paluan Bay in Mindoro Occidental province. Out of the 260 passengers, 5 people perished.