Archive for the ‘Sulpicio Lines’ Category

MV Princess of the Stars: In Memoriam

November 11, 2008






The ill-fated MV Princess of the Stars, as pictured above, is no rust-bucket. In her former life in Japan, she was the revered “Ferry Lilac” of the Shin-Nihonkai Line plying the Honshu-Hokkaido route. One of four sister ships (ships based on the same design so they look identical), she was built in 1984 by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI), a respected shipbuilder. Her dimensions were 185.72 meters length and 29.4 meters width with a depth of 14.5 meters and a volume capacity of 23,824.17 gross tons. Its 2 Pielstick diesel engines produce 26,400 horsepower.

She was the biggest passenger ship ever to ply the Philippine waters. Her sister ship “Ferry Lavender” which reached Greece a few months after she reached the Philippines in 1984 was the biggest-ever Japanese ship to be used in Greece. The four sister ships were much-awaited by international buyers when news surfaced that they would be sold by their Japanese operators.

But, whatever the origins of the ship is, she is only as good as the crew and the shipping company that operates her.

In this regard I fully agree with the Maritime Industry Authority [MARINA] edict that Sulpicio Lines should first hire an international ship management agency before it is permitted to fully sail again in Philippine waters.

(Photo credit: skyscraper)

A Sorry Maritime Safety Record Indeed In The Philippines

November 9, 2008




Few question that currently Sulpicio Lines holds the most notoriety among local shipping companies. But as I have pointed out in a previous article ["The Blame Game and Other Musing", 7/13/08] the combined WG&A is not too far behind Sulpicio, going by actual statistics.

Maybe due to the sheer number of incidents, a few of these gets left out. Or we may not be too meticulous in keeping records (the Maritime Industry Authority [MARINA] doesn’t even have its ship database in order). Or far-flung incidents sometimes does not catch the attention of the national media (except when casualties are simply too many).

Few would remember that in May 1980, the Sulpicio ship MV Dona Paulina struck bottom. The same thing happened to Don Victoriano I in April 1982. Both ships were declared total losses. These two incidents happened before the infamous Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn accidents in 1987 and 1988 (see Totie Mesia’s article, “RP’s Maritime Disasters: A Harvest of Shame and Blame”, 11/08/08). Aside from these, Sulpicio Lines’ ships were also involved in minor incidents like grounding, collision, ship fire and engine breakdowns that did not involve loss of life or the total loss of the ship.

Maybe to break its string of “bad luck” (the local euphemism for loser’s fate), Sulpicio Lines changed the name of their ships into Princesses. For a while it probably broke Sulpicio’s jinx but on December 1997, it lost MV Philippine Princess (a former flagship) to fire and subsequent sinking followed by the sinking of the MV Princess of the Orient (another former flagship) in September 1998. Finally, “bad luck” caught up with a reigning flagship, the MV Princess of the Stars, which capsized recently.

In the same period, some other obscure incidents happened to ships not connected to Sulpicio. In the early ’90s the following ships were lost:

1. MV Emerald which capsized according to MARINA records.

2. MV Ruby I of Alexis Shipping: a RO-RO that sunk just off the port of Calapan due to a holed bottom.

3. A SuperCat (a catamaran) of Aboitiz was lost due to another holed bottom between Mindoro and Batangas.

4 . MV Manila City of William Lines: a Manila-Cebu ship that caught fire while under drydock in Cebu City and was totally lost.

From the mid-’90s and 2000, the following ships were lost to fire:

1. MV Viva Antipolo 7 which caught fire in 1995 according to MARINA records. This ship was totally lost.

2. MV Gretchen which caught fire in 1996 according to MARINA records.

3. MV Kalibo Star of Maypalad Shipping which caught fire in 1997.

4. MV SuperFerry 7 of WG&A: caught fire on March 1997 just after unloading passengers in North Harbor, Manila and was lost.

5. MV Rosalia II of Lapu-lapu Shipping: a Cebu-Cataingan ferry that caught fire a few kilometers before Cataingan port, on August 1999. Three passengers were killed.

6. MV SuperFerry 6 of WG&A: caught fire on October 2000 just off Batangas and was lost. Its nearness to major sea lanes and ports assured the survival of all the passengers.

In this decade, the following steel ferries of minor shipping lines met major accidents. The details of these incidents are not complete:

1. MV Penafrancia which caught fire according to MARINA records.

2. MV Ruperto Jr. of Tamula Shipping: a Camiguin ferry which caught fire.

3. A Super Shuttle Ferry ship of Asian Marine Transport capsized.

4. MV Joy-Ruby of Atienza Shipping: sunk just off the port of Coron, Palawan.

5. MV Pulauan Ferry of George&Peter Lines: a Siquijor ferry that sunk off Cebu City.

Additionally, the following major incidents happened in the last 6 years:

1. MV Princess Camille of Shipshape Shipping: took in water while unloading passengers in Odiongan, Romblon and capsized.

2. MB Mae-Ann 5 of Lobrigo Shipping: overwhelmed by waves off Masbate City on May 12, 2005 while Typhoon Caloy was blowing. 27 people died.

3. MV Princess of the World of Sulpicio Lines: caught fire off Zamboanga del Norte coast on July 2005 and was totally burned.

4. MV Dona Ramona of Basilan Shipping: a bomb exploded while docked in Lamitan, Basilan, on August 8, 2005. Three died.

5. MV Butuan Bay of Gothong Shipping: its engine exploded just after leaving Cebu City on May 16, 2007. Three crewmen died.

6. MV Blue Water Princess of Blue Water Princess Shipping: bad weather and strong waves caused it to capsized off Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon on July 12, 2007 where 12 persons died.

7. MV Northern Samar of Bicolandia Shipping capsized in the height of a typhoon while docked in Tabaco port. Big waves moved the ship against a rock and the bottom was holed.

Additionally, an explosion and a fire happened on August 2002 while MV Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines was drydocked. Two people were killed.

These 22 major incidents are separate from those mentioned in Totie Mesia’s article ["RP's Maritime Disasters: A Harvest of Blame and Shame", 11/08/08]. Proving that marine safety is indeed poor in this country.

The need for witnesses in the Princess of the Stars toxic chemical recovery

September 25, 2008

Divers from Titan Salvage and Harbor Star started their salvage work by taking a survey near around “ground zero,” but media were kept away from the operations center.” GMANewsTV (09/25/08, Dedace, S.)

Why will government officials disallow the media to observe the conduct of the endosulfan recovery operations in the sunken ship Princess of the Stars? With toxic chemicals on board, the ship owned by Sulpicio Lines sank at the height of Typhoon Frank on June 21, 2008, killing about 800 passengers.

For the sake of truth, it’s important that the salvage operation be witnessed. The relatives of those who perished need to know how the bodies trapped in the ship are being handled. Residents in the area close to the sunken ship are anxious to know where their safety stands as sluggish recovery goes on. There must be no secrecy in the recovery operation.

The longer it takes to recover the toxic chemicals, the higher the chance the containers will leak and cause contamination. With real fear of an environmental disaster, the public is left guessing for three months now what’s going on with the chemicals left out to leach in the salty sea.


A haphazard handling of endosulfan can contaminate the area. The hazardous chemical can be carried far by water current and is capable of sparking an environmental catastrophe which can cause havoc in humans and wildlife. If this happens, without the media watching, few people can be warned. And less people will know the truth.

The plan of the local government of Romblon to evacuate residents in case of a spill is laudable, but the people must be assured that the handling of hazardous material is done correctly. To allay public fear, the government needs periodic advisories on the progress of the salvage operation. But these aren’t done as expected.

Perhaps, to discourage the media from being in the site, the concern about being exposed to toxic chemicals isn’t justified. Reporters usually come to sites of danger as part of their jobs, just like those workers who signed up to work in the submerged ship. (Photo Credits: Somophils; Zinnie)=0=

What’s common in C-130 plane crash, Sulpicio Lines’ sinking & the “MOA-ancestral domain” controversy

August 31, 2008

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) symbolic coffins of people presumed dead in a C-130 cargo plane crash bring a message. Barely a week has passed that the 9 military personnel went missing. Many think it’s too soon to dismiss them as dead, much more mourn with a posthumous memorial when no exhaustive search for their bodies have been done.

The flag-draped tribute for the brave soldiers was emotionally-moving. (Photo Credit: Philstar) The same day as the Philippine Navy (PN) announced having found the site of crash, the glum spectacle of honoring those who “perished,” went on. Nobody reported having retrieved a body. No one knows from whom the pieces of human flesh found in the crash site belong to. Only a lonely badge of “Armadong Kusog ng Pilipinas,” ID cards, and an assortment of personal effects stand as evidence of death, convincing high-ranking military officers to “close” the grim case.

Declaring a quick closure on missing persons has become too common in the Philippines. When Abu Sabaya was allegedly swallowed by the sea during a bloody confrontation with the military, a pair of sun-glasses was all that was needed to tell the world, the notorious Abu Sayyaf hostage-killer of Christian missionary Martin Burnham with a hefty cash bounty on his head, was dead. Fabled money was exchanged swiftly as the news rolled in, confusing the public with embarrassing inconsistencies in government statements and media reporting.

Many passengers of the Princess of the Stars were presumed to have passed on almost immediately when the ferry ship was found grounded near Sibuyan Islands. Similarly, the Dona Paz collision with tanker Vector brought fast presumption of deaths, including those not included in the ship manifest.

It seems the military authorities rushed beyond their call of duty by presuming these people were all dead. Military bravery and “efficient” swiftness were perhaps what they wanted to project. But they ignored the medico-legal ramifications of declaring a missing person dead—-something reminiscent of the gaffe behind the bungled memorandum of agreement-ancestral domain (MOA-AD,) tossed to the Supreme Court when Philippine peace negotiators (military men involved) didn’t do enough to ascertain the applicability and legality of giving away territorial concessions to the MILF.

The distribution of cash awards to relatives of unverified dead victims of Sulpicio Lines (Princess of the Stars.) was another thing. Without waiting if the “dead” people involved were truly among the passengers in the boat which sank at the height of Typhoon Frank, there were offers to silence the victims’ relatives with cash. For sometime now, the uproar raised by the mishap had died down quickly as the lawsuits that followed.

Certainly, there are laws governing the declaration of death of a missing person. They have serious practical applications which cover diverse issues such as settling of a decedent’s estate, the awarding of inheritance, indemnity claims, insurance benefits, the exercise of a citizen’s rights to vote, accountability for a crime or contracting marriage.

Let us take contracting marriage as an example. To the best of my knowledge the Philippine Family Code stipulates in Article 41 a 4-year wait before a missing person to be declared dead for the purpose of re-marriage. The waiting time is shortened to two years for a spouse, if the missing person presumably passed on in a sea voyage—- like the sinking of the Sulpicio Lines ferry or in a the falling of an aircraft from the sky like the missing persons of the C-130 plane crash.

At a glance, one can see how often the law is brushed aside. With out following the judicial rules, empty coffins are paraded which seem to perturb the silent public. No one raises any objection— not even the grieving victims’ relatives who took P60,000 (less than $2,000) as “financial” aids for the “death” of their loved ones. =0=

UPDATE: September 2, 2008, a day after the military’s posthumous tribute was held, 7 bodies out of 9 were allegedly recovered. Though not all bodies were complete, waiting for some time was more appropriate so taht the remains of those who perished in C-130 plane crash could be included in the memorial. In keeping with the law, a premature declaraion of death could be avoided.

The Blame Game and Other Musings

July 13, 2008

It was 14 years ago when my attention was first caught by a sea tragedy.  One of the ferries that we use to ride to Mindoro, the Kimelody Cristy caught fire resulting in the loss of lives.  When the heat was intense (no pun intended), the Governor of Mindoro Occidental joined those who were condemning Moreta Shipping Lines, the owner of the vessel.  It did not matter that they were friends.  It also did not matter that Moreta is just an upstart shipping line (and probably undeserving of kicking) trying to break the stranglehold of the combined Viva Shipping Lines/Sto. Domingo Lines/D.R. Shipping who were lording it over the Mindoro routes with predatory pricing and suspected sabotage against competitors. (Well, SuperCat of Aboitiz Shipping Corp. used to keep overnight its catamarans inside a holding pen with underwater extensions and with floodlights and armed roving guards to boot in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, away from the Batangas City base of the 3 shipping lines of “Don” Domingo Reyes, the supreme warlord of Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon; after all the competitors of the Domingo trio used to have one “accident” after the other).  It also did not matter that Kimelody Cristy was the best ship plying the Mindoro route and that the fire was an accident (LPG tanks that are part of the cargo exploded, triggered by welding activities; to the uninitiated, welding activities as part of maintenance work is normally done while a vessel is sailing).  Charges of “floating coffin” and “rust bucket” abounded as if all ships that meet accidents are not seaworthy.  Accidents are operational hazards. We do not easily call a bus that met an accident a “rolling coffin” nor a plane that crashed as a “flying coffin”.  I note that most media people and politicians that make attacks after a marine accident do not ride ships (let’s take away those photo-ops activities of politicians and bureaucrats because that is not real-world sea travel). Moreta became a punching bag maybe because it cannot afford a platoon of high-priced lawyers and PR practitioners. 

A few years later the Dona Marilyn sank in a storm in almost the same circumstances as the sinking a few weeks ago of the Princess of the Stars.  The Dona Marilyn left Cebu City under a storm Signal # 2 (yes, it was allowed then, when Signal #2 typhoons were stronger than current Signal #2 typhoons) and it intended to proceed to Tacloban City towards the direction of a typhoon that was shortly expected to intensify to Signal # 3.  Against the pleadings of some of the passengers, the captain of the ship proceeded reasoning he will seek shelter somewhere if the seas become too rough (one must understand that old captains are veterans of this “seeking-shelter” strategy since they were products of the small ships of the ’60s; the remnants of these ships still ply the Cebu-Bohol routes so one can still see their size or lack thereof and its design). As fate would have it the elements literally tore into Dona Marilyn.  The tarpaulin covers of the sides of the ship was not able to contain the rain and wave surge (folks, don’t worry ’cause big ships nowadays have cabins), deluging the inside of the ship causing it to list (to tilt on its side). Even though the passengers helped in baling water, it went to no avail ’cause soon the engine of the ship conked out (one must suspect it became inundated in water).  A ship without power in a typhoon is practically a dead ship since it can no longer maneuver.  Many lives were lost in that tragedy. 

The Board of Marine Inquiry ruled the sinking as “force majeure” (?!!?).  Sailing into the storm and it is declared a “force majeure”???  Maybe, as the say, “Tell it to the Marines”!  Now with a probe where some congressmen are more content in questioning PAGASA (makes on wonder where their loyalty is; anyway it won’t probably matter in the next elections because their constituents do not ride ships and maybe so because they probably come from Luzon; but I doubt the wisdom in appointing in an investigating body someone who do not ride ships just like the question put forward by the newspaper Malaya editor-in-chief against the DOTC Undersecretary who is the government pointman in the Princess of the Stars tragedy), the investigation might just turn into a blame game. Through the ticket it is still possible to see the canniness of the Sulpicio attacks against PAGASA and its labeling of the accident as an “act of God”.  Are the “motions to inhibit” against some independent-minded Board of Marine Inquiry members a prelude to another verdict of “force majeure”?

When the Dona Paz burned and sank in a collision with the tanker Vector (thus putting us on the world map of marine disasters because of the size of the casualty) and Dona Marilyn sank in a storm, the Sulpicio Lines changed the names of its ships from the Dons and Donas to Princesses (as in Princess of the Stars).   But it seemed there was no change in their “luck” as the Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars sank in storms and the Princess of the World and Philippine Princess both burned (the latter in anchorage).  Well, I do not think that “luck” is an essential thing in navigation.  If it is then the study of it must be mandated as part of a naval curriculum and degree but it is not.

It was 1995 when I first rode a “Sacrificio” (a.k.a. Sulpicio) ship (yes, it is the monicker of Sulpicio Lines just as “Gutom Shipping” is the monicker of Gothong Shipping Corp. [so Gothong made sure then that its passengers are well fed, but not now]).  I noticed a picket line inside the company premises in the North Harbor.  “Claimants” (daw) against Sulpicio in the Dona Paz sinking.  But porters and cigarette vendors told me they were not legitimate claimants but unscrupulous persons out to fleece Sulpicio Lines with bogus claims.  That incident made me think and research.  After a few years of riding ships of Dona Paz‘s size during the Yuletide rush, i no longer believe the claim that up to 4,000 passengers died in that accident (the company admitted 1,568).  No way that a ship intended for 1,518 passengers will be able to take in more than double its capacity.  It is not just a question of passenger space but also the capacity of the ship to take in all those people (folks, meals in local inter-island ships are, in general, free so all of them will want to be fed during meal times).  But the bad thing is we became the world record-holder in the number of casualty due to a peacetime ship sinking.

Fighting all the way in courts is a grim battle for the families of the victims.  Searching the Net, it seems it takes more than 20 years before a final decision is reached at the Supreme Court level (so probably the idea of the Chief Justice to set up a maritime accident court makes sense).  And I think if the reasoning of the Sulpicio Lines is it’s a force majeure then probably it will reach the highest Court if one intends to claim to claim the full extent of damages against Sulpicio Lines.

On other hand, I also bemoan the knee-jerk reaction of government functionaries that mandated that under Signal #1 ships irregardless of size cannot sail. It will just create a lot of stranded passengers. Passengers will lose, bus companies, truck companies and shippers will lose.  The only winners will be the vendors and eateries in the port terminals.  Now I wonder what kind of economics is that.  It only betrays the ignorance of land-bound people in government who regulates ships but do not ride ships. It is not even proven at this point nor will it ever be proven that laxity in regulations led to the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking.  Maybe it was just plain recklessness combined with poor navigation and making the passengers and shippers pay for this is just a lot of hassle and pure lack of common sense (well, I forgot our government was never ever known for good common sense).

 

I do not see in these modern times why sailing restrictions for sea vessels are still governed by the typhoon signal when in my experience for sea people including fishermen the more important measurement is the wave level.  All we hear at the forecasts disseminated by the media is the wind speed measured in kilometers per hour and typhoon direction and speed when also part of the forecast is the wave height which is far more important when one is at sea especially during the night.  Also I wonder why PAGASA is now the de facto final arbiter in the sailings when everybody knows the level of forecast of PAGASA is just at the province or island/island group level.  It cannot define in real-time a local weather condition like if it is still safe to cross  San Bernardino Strait or Lagonoy Gulf or Ticao Pass/Black Rock Pass (in the Net, several weather forecasts and satellite pictures are always available and in real-time).  A re-tooled Coast Guard might be able to do a better job since its units are scattered in all the ports (after all, they are tasked with clearing the sailings of the vessels) and they can visually see the roughness of the sea and gauge the strength and direction of the wind (and I thought in earlier times there were coast watchers). Comparing it to air travel, it is still the local airport and the Air Transport Office (ATO) that declare the airport closed for landings and take-offs, not PAGASA.

In the last typhoon (“Frank”), PAGASA forecasted wave heights of 10-14 feet while other international weather agencies forecasted wave heights of up to 18 feet (in general, PAGASA’s wind speed and wave height forecasts are lower than the international weather agencies’ forecasts).  Does anybody need a translator how strong a sea is that?  And wave heights of up to 10 feet are sometimes forecast in Mindoro waters even when the storm is still in Samar, especially during the southwest moonsoon period when the seas are rougher.  With the advent of cell phones and the the general availability of phones, the government should make clear to all localities how strong the waves are when there is a typhoon so as to prevent the sinking of fishing boats which are also part of the sea casualties in a typhoon (in the last typhoon over 20 fishing boats sank resulting in over 1,100 dead and missing which is higher than the Princess of the Stars‘ casualty, aside from a few cargo ships sunk).  Preventive measures should be done because for all the hullabaloo about conversion to GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress Signal System), the simple truth is that our Coast Guard personnel will not venture out to sea under storm conditions just to save your ass.  Remember it was fishermen in small fishing boats who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Orient sinking because as one said in an interview he simply cannot bear the sight of a lady being swamped by big waves.  Does one need to be reminded who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking?

In the final analysis, to put things in the proper perspective especially for those who don’t travel by ship, the chances of getting killed in a road accident is still far higher than getting killed in a ship accident although the chances of getting killed in a plane accident is much slimmer than both.

[To be fair to Sulpicio Lines, let it be said that its main competitor WG&A (the SuperFerries) with about the same number of ships has about the same rate of mishaps in the same period. SuperFerry 6 burned off Batangas and SuperFerry 7 burned in anchorage.  SuperFerry 14 burned off Corregidor (not due to Abu Sayyaf according to Malacanang but everybody knows the truth and this is probably a true case of force majeure if acts of sabotage are such).  SuperFerry 12 was involved in a collision with San Nicholas (a wooden-hulled ship locally called a batel) in Manila Bay resulting in the sinking of the latter.  To this total, the collision and sinking of Cebu City (a William Lines ship) in Manila Bay just before the merger of 3 major shipping companies that resulted in the creation of William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) should also be include since this happened after the Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn sinkings.  WG&A and its passengers are just more fortunate that these mishaps produced far less casualties than the Sulpicio Lines mishaps.

Does anybody want a safer trip?  Then maybe sail via Negros Navigation Company.  It has no comparable mishaps during the same period and I do not know how they managed that feat though it is only a third of the size of either Sulpicio or WG&A.  Luck, perhaps?  Or is it a matter of naming the ships after the saints (as in St. Peter The Apostle and San Paolo)?]

(The writer has sailed in more than 120 long and short voyages in over 65 different vessels in the last 14 years. Ship is his favorite mode of transport in going to Luzon.  He has been a passenger aboard 7 different Sulpicio ships covering some 15 voyages.) 

 

   

Decaying bodies at sea, an inflation rate of 11.4%, and a cascade of woes for Filipinos

July 4, 2008

Barely three weeks after the negligent grounding of the Sulpicio Lines ferry at the height of typhoon Frank, a cascade of adverse effects has surfaced adding more injury and pain to untold number of people, near and far from Romblon, the site of the tragedy.

As evidence of negligence surface, decaying bodies float in the sea, making retrieval difficult. As days go by, the burden to identify these bodies has overtaxed the forensic experts, raising anew the lack of preparedness of the nation to tackle a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Relatives of those who died have lost sleep grieving their lost loved ones. They’re confused about their legal rights—what options they have to pursue justice for those who perished. Rather than fight the gargantuan obstacles posed by the sluggish legal system, can they be appeased by measly settlements by the owners of the ferry company? They mull on whether the P200,000 being offered by Sulpicio Lines to each victim is the right compensation for each human life.

A hideous find of toxic insecticide in the sunken ferry has posed problems on how to contain a potential contamination that could sicken people in the area and destroy the livelihood of countless fishermen dependent on the resources of the sea. Time is of the essence. It isn’t easy to remove the 10-ton illegal cargo that’s sitting dangerously in the hull of the Princess of the Stars. Endosulfan (thiodan) is highly dangerous and a significant leakage of the chemical poses destructive possibilities that could last for years. It poses health risks for those working to recover anything from the ill-fated ferry.

Hundreds of miles away, like in poor Bicol villages of Balatan and Pasacao in Camarines Sur, innocent people bear the brunt of the disaster. In Naga City, a sharp drop of fish consumption on fear of contamination has driven down price of fish to 80% below its normal value while the cost of rice rose to 43%.

Before the news of dead bodies floating in Ragay Gulf broke, fish sales were okay. Of the 100 customers who buy here during normal times, you could only have one today who would dare to buy our products,” Corazon Diaz, vendor of Naga City said, dramatizing the immediate impact of dead bodies in the seas to their business even as the Department of Health has officially announced that there was no immediate danger on people’s health. Bicol Mail. (O7/05/08, Escandor, J. Jr.)

Parallel to the damage wrought by storm, the effects of fuel price increases continue to batter the nation. The rainy season has set in and more typhoons and landslides are expected by the weather watcher PAGASA. Mayon volcano in Albay has shown signs of activity which augurs a possible eruption. The dollar exchange which hovers at P45.70 per dollar has weakened, prompting central bank to prop up the currency from further devaluation. In June, the inflation rate has risen to 11.4%, pegging a record high in 14 years.

“The price of rice soared by 43 percent because of growing demand and increased costs of inputs. This means that the rice a consumer bought for P100 in June last year may be had for P143 last month.

Prices of food products included in the Filipino consumer basket rose by 17.4 percent. This means food products that had cost P100 in June last year, cost P117.4 last month.” Inquirer (07.05.08, Remo, M.)

The hideous chain of events is nothing that anyone could have imagined, but it has happened— wrecking havoc to the entire nation. To what extent the public will cope with these calamities (natural or man-made, local or global) is something for now and the future. Certainly, there’s enough blame to spread around, but in this situation, it’s the poor, the young, and elderly who suffer the most. =0=

Fast and Fair Justice Needed

July 1, 2008

Although the slow pace of justice in the Philippines has been repeatedly criticized, the verdict on the Julia Campbell case must be the blue print of how fast cases must be resolved. After more than year of investigation, confessed Benguet killer Juan Donald Duntugan, a 25 year-old woodcarver, was sentenced to 40 years in prison without parole. He was asked to pay P39 million in damages to the Campbell family.

“An attack made by a man with a deadly weapon upon an unarmed and defenseless woman constitutes the circumstance of abuse that superiority which his sex, and the weapon used in the act afforded him, and by means of which the woman was overcome and rendered unable to defend herself,” said the decision of Judge Ester Piscoso-Flor of the Ifugao Regional Trial Court branch 34 on June 30, 2008. Philstar (07/01/08, Lagasca, C.)

The monetary compensation seemed huge and the prison sentence apt, but we know the wasted life a US Peace Corps volunteer is more valuable. To compare, those who perished in 911 when terrorists blew up the Twin Towers got an average of $3.1 million from the government, insurances and charitable institutions. Julia Campbell who went missing on April 8, 2008 deserved more compensation. She had a rich and productive life ahead her—more than what the US Peace Corps might have envisioned when it was started in 1961 by Pres. John F. Kennedy:

“Coming from all walks of life and representing the rich diversity of the American people, Peace Corps Volunteers range in age from college students to retirees. Every Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience is different. From teaching English to elementary school children in Zambia to launching a computer learning center in Moldova to promoting HIV/AIDS awareness in South Africa to working on soil conservation in Panama, Volunteers bring their skills and life experiences to where they are needed most.“ http://www.peacecorps.gov

Be as it may, the verdict on the Campbell case brings a sigh of relief to the nation. Filipinos are pushing that other legal cases be handled expeditiously, particularly those involving crimes of citizens, irrespective of who the parties are.

There are still a lot to be desired with our justice system. It must not be too slow or too fast as Pres. Gloria M. Arroyo’s wishy-washy order (Inquirer,07/01/08, Dalangin-Fernandez, L.) that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) wrap up its findings on the Sulpicio Lines ferry tragedy in 10 short days. Critics suspect this haphazard unrealistic presidential edict as a form of political posturing which risks the proper carriage of justice.=0=

Toxic Cargo

June 28, 2008

After Sulpicio Lines blamed God for the sinking of the passenger ship “Princess for the Stars,” an illegal cargo of 10 metric tons of endosulfan, a highly hazardous neurotoxic organochlorine insecticide was found in the shipwreck, prompting divers to stop their mission of retrieving bodies from the ship’s hull.

According to Philstar (06/28/08, Berondo, W. et. Al)

They (Sulpicio Lines) only told Del Monte on Wednesday, in writing, that the cargo had been switched to the passenger ship. That was five days after the ferry sank. This type of chemical is not allowed on board passenger ships. ” Norlito Vicana, the director of the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority told ABS-CBN.

Del Monte said Sulpicio Lines loaded the endosulfan on the Princess of the Stars instead of the Princess of the Paradise “ without the knowledge and consent of Del Monte Philippines, Inc. (DMPI.)”

“ Upon learning that our cargo was loaded on the ill-fated Princess of the Stars, we immediately informed the FPA, ” a DMPI statement read.

With a clamor to ban the dangerous chemical worldwide, the use of endosulfan (thiodan) is prohibited in the European Union (EU) and other countries; its use in the Philippines is restricted. The United States still uses the pesticide which was first registered in 1954 for agricultural use, mainly to control insects and pests on fruits and vegetables.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) did not have knowledge of the toxic cargo placed inside a container van until it learned from DMPI, the insecticide consignee. Although no evidence of leakage has been detected, some divers had their blood checked for exposure in a laboratory in Singapore.

When ingested, inhaled or absorbed in the skin in significant amounts, acute endosulfan poisoning causes hyperactivity, nausea, dizziness, headache, tremors, seizures or even death. Chronic exposure can affect endocrine function as reproductive maturation delay and it can bring damage to the kidneys, testes and the liver. There is no antidote for endosulfan poisoning, and treatment is basically supportive (i.e. anticonvulsants for seizures.)=0=

The Ferry Tragedy: Lack Of Body Bags And The Dearth Of Forensic Expertise

June 27, 2008

The advice of UP pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun that “there must be a detailed external examination of all remains recovered while the soft tissues are still intact for documentation and proper identification” seems to be what we know from a pathology textbook. But for those who are aware of how forensic science is practiced in the Philippines, this recommendation is a pipe dream, especially for those who lost loved ones in the Princess of the Stars tragedy.

In spite of advanced forensic technology currently in use today, our investigators are mostly operating on antiquated scientific grounds, very much like the outdated travel guidelines Sulpicio Lines followed which led to the ill-fated ship to its seabed grave. Our forensic doctors may well be 50 years behind in what modern science normally does to deal with deaths of this magnitude.

We don’t have enough freezers and body bags to keep our cadavers. There is no central repository of bodies that’s needed to secure material evidence and specimens for testing. We lack the manpower and logistics to deal with such a catastrophe which upsets all of us. With no time to put up a coordinated team, pressure to bury decomposing bodies builds up. The public is afraid of potential contamination and outbreak of diseases.

Since I left UP-PGH in the 1980’s, little had changed in our way of medico-legal investigation. In those days, as member of the Department of Pathology, I volunteered to help examine remains—a thankless job I did for free, because few pathologists in the academe were willing to do it. I believed it was a calling which I must sustain for those who sought justice. I joined the National Bureau Investigation (NBI,) Commission on Human Rights (CHR,) and some cause-oriented groups perform autopsies and identifications, mostly for victims of violence and killings during Marcos’s time.

The reasons for the dearth of interest in forensic science are largely predictable. For years, the systemic lack of budget has spawned a culture of waiting, inaction, and helplessness on the part of the government. Gruesome and messy as necropsies may be, forensic science is a tedious job. Few doctors go into the specialty for lack of appreciation of its contribution to our society. It appears a sizeable number of medico-legal doctors stick to their jobs as their source of livelihood, not because they gain professional satisfaction in caring for the dead and in seeking the truth behind a person’s passing.

Many medico-legal doctors in the Philippines are trained on the routine crime scene investigation, identification of bodies and autopsy, but they sorely lack support. As basic as a steady supply of gloves, sharp scalpels, or a good morgue assistant, pathologists don’t have standard modern autopsy facilities. Besides, they have only a few credible laboratories with state-of-the-art capabilities which can help put their cases to rest.

The routine death investigations do not usually pose problems. It is the sensational demise, those that hug the news and cause public controversy and pain that bring embarrassment to our medico-legal capabilities. In our ranks, we have forensic workers who are slowed by the endemic problems of the profession: job-overload, lack of facilities, inadequate budgetary support, turf wars, and a dearth in trained manpower.

There are times when we don’t believe what our medico-legal investigators say. Questionable results of past cases make them appear untrustworthy. The question of competence and honesty often crop up, making them cynical and defensive. Burdened by their deficiencies, they end up as apologists and defenders of an institution that needs total overhaul.

Body retrieval and identification disturb us. In mass deaths, our instinct is to ask help from forensic experts abroad, believing that it’s the only way a reliable medico-legal investigation can be carried out. Our unending dependence on foreign assistance makes us lose our drive to learn, work hard, and trust in ourselves.

Who then will do the examination, documentation, procurement of tissue samples that may aid in identifying the dead? Who will provide the freezers that Dr. Fortun asks for (Inguirer, 06/27/08, Uy, J.)—so that the NBI and medico-legal experts like her could do their job to the satisfaction of the grieving public? When will we get the central repository of remains and tissue samples of unidentified victims?

The main purpose of postmortem examination in the tragedy is to recognize the dead as quickly as possible so that their relatives can give them decent burial. Body retrieval and identification will help bring closure to the grief of loved ones. Necropsy is important in the prosecution of case(s) against the culpable. It’s vital in pursuing justice for the victims.

At this time, it is less important to know the victim’s circumstance and manner of dying, for without the ship’s sinking, all the passengers could be presumed alive to reach their destination. Most of those who perished probably drowned.

More than 20 years after I left UP-PGH, I doubt if precise identification could be done on many victims of Sulpicio Lines. An overwhelming number of decomposing bodies, in various stages of decay, at different sites in the islands, some drifting from the shipwreck have been found floating or washed to shore. It appears the manpower and forensic expertise to do a credible job on these bodies, are meager and inadequate. =0=


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