40 die as Philippine ferry capsizes

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: November 5, 2008

MANILA: Forty people, 11 of them children, died after a ferry capsized in the central Philippines, the Coast Guard said Wednesday, the latest in a long line of maritime tragedies.

The Philippine Coast Guard said the interisland ferry, the Don Dexter Cathlyn, overturned on Tuesday after being buffeted by strong winds and waves en route to Sorsogon Province south of Manila.

The Philippine Red Cross said more than 100 passengers had been rescued by Wednesday but that at least a dozen more were missing. The ship’s manifest listed only 119 passengers, although the coast guard said many passengers often do not register. Interisland ferries in the Philippines are often overloaded with passengers and cargo.

The Red Cross said two of the bodies have not been claimed by relatives. The survivors, most of whom suffered shock, sleeplessness and starvation, will undergo “stress debriefing,” the relief agency said.

A coast guard official, Captain Efren Evangelista, told The Associated Press that charges could be brought against the owners of the ship because it sailed without the required clearance and may have been overloaded.

“The coast guard should have inspected it and prevented it from leaving if it found violations,” Evangelista said. “In this case, the operator of the ship did not inform us it was leaving port.”

Such violations are common in this archipelago nation, where ferries are the primary mode of transportation between islands.

Several overloaded passenger ships have sunk here over the years, killing thousands of people, mainly because of lax safety regulations, said Harry Roque, a lawyer who represents several families of victims of some of these mishaps.

Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Red Cross, which often deals with these tragedies, said the maritime industry in the Philippines was so primitive that sea disasters were inevitable. “We have the best sailors in the world, but our ships are really old,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “We really have to modernize the industry.”

Roque said that corruption at the ports was a problem that allowed ships to sail without the necessary clearance. He also said shipping companies had successfully evaded sanctions, even closure by the government, because they often settle cases with victims for paltry sums.

Despite the series of sea tragedies in the past several decades, government safety regulation has not improved, Roque said.

Sulpicio Lines, the company that owns the Princess of the Stars ferry, which sank in June, killing most of its 800 passengers, remains in operation despite evidence that it had been negligent – it left port despite an oncoming typhoon – and despite a poor safety record, Roque said.

The company had insisted that bad weather caused the ship to sink in the central Philippines on June 23, at the height of a typhoon, even suing the government’s weather bureau for its alleged faulty weather forecast. Ships owned by Sulpicio Lines figured in several of the worst maritime disasters in the country.

Meanwhile, rescuers only managed last week to start retrieving bodies from inside the overturned Princess of the Stars, four months after it sank. Rescuers had to first take out the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan from inside the ship, which was the reason for the delay. Officials said the deadly cargo should not have been loaded on the passenger ship – yet another apparent sea safety violation.

Michelle Basco, a maritime lawyer whose family is also into the shipping business, said the government is hard put to strictly enforce maritime regulations because “shipping is very capital intensive and the government cannot really strictly implement standards because otherwise nobody will invest or operate these ferries.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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