Archive for the ‘Princess of the Stars’ Category

They Let the Ferries Sail That Night Anyway: The Denouement of the Classic Conflict

January 6, 2009


As I said in my previous article [“Storm Signals Lowered, Coast Guard Suspension of Trips Remain, the Classic Conflict and Ten Thousand Stranded in Bicol, 01/04/09], I would like to see how the classic conflict between ensuring safety at sea and ships wanting to sail in borderline conditions (seas are probably rough because of prevailing weather conditions but storm signals were lowered) will be played out.

At 8:30pm the same night the Coast Guard allowed ships to sail, citing that PAGASA has already lifted the storm signal (though the typhoon is still signal and there is no guarantee that it will not change course; after all, Typhoon Frank changed course during the night and capsized the unwary but negligent MV Princess of the Stars).

Did they just wait for media to finish the early evening news? Or is it the situation that ship captains and owners are at their faces demanding to sail? It could also be the pressure coming from many passengers who are already at the end of their patience. And local governments tiring of caring for the thousands of passengers encamped in their jurisdiction. It could also be all of the above.

Fortunately, no “unfortunate incident” happened. But we cannot be lucky all the time. But taking chances is life’s reality here.

I just wonder why Philippine Navy and Coast Guard vessels are moored in major ports and not near the busy ferry lanes. How can they respond fast if a distress call is issued? So many ferries left Allen (Northern Samar) and the ports of western Leyte and Bohol that night carrying thousands and thousands of passengers. Wouldn’t it be better if they have been escorted?

I just hope that when they let the ferries sail that they were in a better position to help if things did not go right.

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)

Endosulfan safely retrieved: where are the other toxic chemicals?

October 6, 2008

There is a sigh of relief from the successful recovery of the toxic chemical cargo endosulfan from the ill-fated ship Princess of the Stars which sank at the height of Typhoon Frank 3 months ago in Romblon, Philippines. As the 402 barrels of endosulfan (about 10,000 kg) are sent to Manila, the government is bent to return the shipment to Israel.

The focus now must be the unfinished job of finding the other toxic chemicals and the retrieval of bodies which were trapped in the ship. About 10,000 liters of bunker fuel and at least four hazardous chemicals namely carbofuran, propineb, metamidophos and niclosamide haven’t been fully accounted for. In addition, it is unclear what happened to the 16 metric tons of toluene diisocyanate (TDI) in 80 drums that are missing from another ship: the MV Ocean Papa which sank in Mararison Island, Culasi.

So long as these hazardous chemicals haven’t accounted for, the danger of contamination is still there. Continued search for the missing toxic cargoes and monitoring of the surrounding environment are still priorities. The accountability of those responsible, particularly Sulpicio Lines, owner of the ship, must be pursued.(Photo Credit: AP/Bullit Marquez)=0=

China’s Shenzhou-7 spacecraft, its melamine-contaminated milk & RP’s incapacity to do lab tests

September 27, 2008

The Beijing Space Command and Control Center announced the successful space walk of astronaut Zhai Zhigang who carried a Chinese flag outside the orbit module. The proud news of being the third country to ever do such a feat in space is bogged by the worsening embarrassment from the sale of melamine-tainted milk which sickened more than 53,000 children (mostly in China,) and blamed for the death of at least 4 people. Melamine-related illnesses had been reported in Taiwan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

The Chinese adulterated milk has crept into other dairy and food products including the popular “white rabbit” candies, chocolates, ice-cream, yoghurt, pastries and confectioner’s biscuits. This food safety scandal has been on-going since last year when China has been under criticism for improperly selling pet food, toys, toothpaste laced with industrial toxins. The European Union, Japan, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are among countries which banned the Chinese imported milk.

Amid outrage versus greed and corruption, Prime Minster Wen Jiabao promised food safety and ethical standards in Chinese products. This year, the Philippines bought 2 million kilograms of milk from China. Monitoring by the Department of Health (DOH) for illnesses that may be ascribed to melamine-contamination in milk and dairy products is on-going.

The Philippines has meager laboratory capacity to undertake testing for melamine and other poisons. Authorities mull on sending specimens out to neighboring countries the way they did with the endosulfan scare and fatality identification during the sinking of Princess of the Stars three months ago. To avoid future embarrassments, a self-respecting country must put up a decent laboratory of its own. The government must not rely on its neighbors to do its laboratory work. (Photo Credits: AP; Annasea; brutaldolltx) =0=

Update: On September 29, 2008, the popular Cadbury cholocate has been recalled from sale in Great Britain in the wake of melamine-contamination scare. The recall doesn’t cover the Cadbury chocolates being sold in United States.

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=

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.)