Thursday, January 7, 2010

More Pointless RoRo Ferry Deaths In Philippines

Will Another Tragedy Instigate a Review of Vessels and Procedures?
Shipping News Feature

PHILIPPINES – There have been five separate incidents in a month affecting the network of small RoRo vessels that serve as an essential economic lifeline for both passengers and freight throughout the disparate network of islands that make up the region, most of which make for horrendous reading and leave local authorities and shipping company executives facing serious questions.

The view of the outside world is that the vessels involved are too aged for service elsewhere and are bought up by the local shipping groups simply to provide cheap equipment until they, sometimes almost literally, die. This perception however is often incorrect. The vessels may often be old but the MV Catalyn B which foundered off Limbones Island on Christmas Eve, with a probable death toll of 27, was a wooden ship, as so many of her type are, built locally on Romblon Island in 1987 and as such was one of the older vessels in use. Other wooden ships have had hulls crack open (Commander 6 May 2009 – 12 dead) and capsize (Don Dexter Kathleen November 2008 – 42 dead.

Ostensibly more substantial vessels simply mean higher death tolls. Baleno 9 was constructed in Japan in 1992 and went down hours after Christmas day, this time with possibly 50 dead.

Take note of that “possibly” for here is where the crux of the problem with the regions inter island transport lies. It appears that local ship owners are reluctant to see any revision to their trade and just this week Ms Maria Elena Bautista of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) claimed at an inquiry into the situation that “a strong lobby” had consistently prevented her from instituting reforms in the industry.

To an outsider the facts appear frankly incredible. The Baleno 9 was refitted with extra decks after purchase to accommodate more passengers and freight thus altering the balance of the vessel. One Senator said this week she was “not fit for the open sea”. Her manifest showed 75 passengers plus presumably the 18 crew, a separate document registers a total of 132 people on board.

Accusations are rife now with Government officers being accused of protecting their own interests by submitting to shipping company requests to water down intended working practices. The Maritime Code proposals were apparently altered after pressure and what was an 18 part document is now reduced to only 8 chapters according to press reports.

With 7000 islands involved administrating individual cases is obviously proving a nightmare. MARINA are taking steps to modernise the main trade routes but to satisfy reasonable health and safety standards enforceable legislation is needed now which will pervade all the multi island routes. Mentioning only major disasters in 1987 over 4300 died after the Don Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, 1988 her sister ship Dona Marilyn sank of Leyte with the loss of “around” 300 people, 1994 it was the Cebu City which went down costing about 140 lives, in 1998 Princess of the Orient, about 200, 2008 a typhoon took the Princess of the Stars killing over 800. Known drownings in the region now stand at between 5 and 6000 over the past few years.

One of the common factors you may note is that, even today, after a catalogue of such horrific incidents, vessels are still sailing, not only with insufficient life preserving aids, but with manifests which have been prepared wilfully showing incorrect details.

The eyes of the world are turned upon the Philippines. For a nation which provides such a large percentage of crews for container carriers, bulk tankers and cruise ships worldwide to leave its own domestic mariners and passengers open to such huge risks in the name of profit is simply unacceptable. The ferries provide an essential lifeline for the region and minimum standards need to be imposed to ensure safety despite the cost.

Pic: Members of U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force–Philippines (JSOTF-P) search liferafts for survivors after 9th September 2009 sinking of Superferry 9 with the loss of 9 lives. (US Navy release)