Monday, June 23, 2008

Sulpicio under investigation after 700 die in Philippines ferry disaster

Over 700 people have been listed as missing after a passenger ferry sunk in a Philippines typhoon. The ship's manifest listed 751 passengers and 111 crew when it left port, Sulpicio Lines said. Rescuers said only 32 people had been found alive so far, and a large-scale search and rescue operation had been launched. The ship ran aground on Saturday 3 kms offshore of the central Filipino island of Sibuyan. The tilt of the upturned bow remained above the waterline yesterday but frogmen found no signs of life aboard. Most died as crowded life rafts were overturned in cold and heavy seas.

The 24,000 tonne Princess of the Stars was stranded near Sibuyan Island with the local coast guard unable mount a rescue bid due to high waves. It was travelling from Manila to Cebu when the accident occurred. One of the few survivors told a local radio station that there was only one onboard warning issued half an hour before the ship started to tilt. "Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," said the survivor identified only as Jesse. "Immediately after I jumped, the ship tilted, the older people were left on the ship".

While initial reports said there were only four survivors, another 28 were rescued by fishermen on a nearby island after drifting for 24 hours. They made it to shore on a life raft to a small coastal village in Quezon province. After their miraculous survival, they told locals that two people had fallen overboard during their ordeal. A US navy ship is heading to the Philippines to help search for the hundreds of people still missing in the disaster.

The ferry was the victim of Typhoon Fengshen (also known as “Frank”) which slammed into the central Philippines on Friday. At least 230 people have died elsewhere as a result of the typhoon. The typhoon caused sea surges and large waves as it moved west northwest over Luzon at 19 km per hour, with maximum winds of 140 kph and gustiness of up to 170 kph. The typhoon struck the ferry at 12.30pm local time Saturday.

The Filipino Government has announced it will form a task force to investigate the cause of the disaster. Led by transportation secretary Leandro Mendoza, the Board of Marine inquiry would coordinate search and rescue efforts and also determine whether the owners Sulpicio Lines were culpable. Its fleet (the largest plying Philippines waters) has been grounded pending results of the investigation. A spokesperson for Sulpicio said it was prepared to cooperate with the inquiry but insisted the ferry was seaworthy and had been allowed to sail despite a storm forecast.

However this was the fourth disaster in two days for Sulpicio and Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has demanded answers. She wants to know why the ferry was allowed to leave port in Manila despite warnings the typhoon was about to hit. She held a conference call with maritime officials which was broadcast live on local radio and asked “Why did you allow it to sail and why was there no ample warning? I want answers."

This morning, an anti-crime and corruption group called Sulpicio a “recidivist” organisation and threatened to file charges against the shipping line. Dante Jimenez, chairman of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), said they would be lodging charges against the 35-year-old shipping company and also seeking to have their operating license revoked. “The license of Sulpicio Lines should already be revoked because to a number of sea mishaps it got involved in where many people have died,” he said.

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