Sulpicio found relying on old Coast Guard circular

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — SULPICIO Lines, whose ferry capsized with 800 people onboard on Saturday, has been operating under an outdated circular governing the movement of ships during bad weather, government investigators learned yesterday.

In a hearing before the Board of Marine Inquiry, the company’s lawyer, Arthur Lim, cited a Maritime Industry Authority circular that said the Coast Guard was responsible for plotting the routes of storms and disseminating the information to ship owners.

But Rear Adm. Ramon Liwag, who heads the board of inquiry, said the circular in question had been replaced by a memo issued in June 2007.

The new circular says the movements of any ship passing through areas where storm signal no. 1 is raised are left to the decision and responsibility of the master or shipowner.

Liwag said the Coast Guard may recommend a course of action, but it was the ship’s captain who should decide whether or not to set sail.

Edgar Go, vice president of Sulpicio Lines, said his company had not been informed of the revised circular.

Go told the board the last message they received from the shipmaster was 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

“The message said the ship was listing heavily,” Go said.

The board grilled Go on safety procedures and equipment onboard the m/v Princess of Stars, wanting to know why no distress signal went out when it ran aground Saturday night off Sibuyan Island in Romblon.

The board also questioned the port captain, engineers and radio operators who were on duty during the voyage.

It asked Sulpicio Lines to provide copies of the Princess’ cargo storage plan, its cargo manifest and radio logs.

Earlier, a source told Standard Today that investigators wanted to know if the cargo on the ferry had been lashed properly. Cargo that is not tied down could cause listing in rough waters, the source said.

Near the disaster site, 57 more bodies were found in the expanded search area close to where the Princess had capsized, even as four US Navy rubber boats with eight American divers joined the search.

The ferry was lying on unstable coral and villagers said a deep trench might be nearby. There were concerns it could slip and plunge deeper.

“It’s a delicate situation with the ferry’s position on a reef out there,” said Lt. Christian de Salvo of the USNS Stockham, adding the American divers were working with Filipino frogmen to survey the seabed.

“We’ll provide them all the equipment they need, but they’ll be the ones to go into the ship and take out the bodies,” De Salvo said.

In a telephone interview at 2 p.m. yesterday, Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo said they had recovered 54 bodies 17 nautical miles off Burias Island.

Earlier, Arevalo said that at 9 a.m. he received information that a spy plane joining the search had spotted 30 bodies floating on life vests in the area.

He said three other bodies on life vests washed ashore in Palma Point, north of Burias.

“The fatalities appeared to be two Filipinos and a foreigner,” Arevalo said.

On Tuesday, the National Disaster Coordinating Council reported that 70 bodies had been recovered.

The National Bureau of Investigation yesterday sent a 16-member team of forensic experts to help identify the bodies recovered.

In Manila, a distraught man whose cousin and niece were among the missing climbed a tower at the Philippine Ports Authority compound carrying a placard, demanding that Sulpicio Lines take relatives to the ferry site or where the bodies were being taken. He was persuaded to come down.

Relatives questioned why the ship was allowed to leave Manila late Friday for a 20-hour trip to Cebu with a typhoon approaching.

On Wednesday, there were no signs that 250,000 liters of bunker fuel in the ferry had leaked. Earlier, there were fears the hull could break up and cause an oil spill.

Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, interviewed in Singapore, said his department was monitoring the vessel. Sulpicio would be made to pay for cleaning up any damage caused by such an oil spill.

“We will pin them down if an oil spill happens. They cannot escape responsibility for that,” he said.

Sources told Standard Today the shipping company’s insurance did not include the cost of such a cleanup.

President Arroyo, on a US trip, ordered a thorough probe and said she hoped to avoid similar accidents.

Coast Guard Station Manila commander Erwin Balagas was relieved pending the conduct of the board’s investigation. Balagas was commander at the time the Princess left the Port of Manila Friday night.

A Coast Guard spokesman said his relief did not mean Balagas was liable for the ferry disaster, but was part of normal procedures followed during an investigation.