Sulpicio wants probe stopped

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — SULPICIO Lines yesterday asked a Manila court to stop the Board of Marine Inquiry from investigating the sinking of its ferry, the m/v Princess of the Stars, which capsized June 21 with 850 people on board.

In its petition, the shipping company said the board lacked jurisdiction and asked the regional trial court to issue a temporary restraining order that would stop its hearings.

One day into their own probe, congressmen took the side of Sulpicio Lines and blamed the weather bureau for gross negligence.

But one congressman, Mandaluyong Rep. Ruffy Biazon, urged his colleagues to stop doing the job that rightly belonged to the Board of Marine Inquiry.

“Our primary objective should be to come up with legislation,” he said.

In hearings yesterday, lawmakers took turns in grilling the bureau’s director, Prisco Nilo, and faulted his agency for failing to issue more timely bulletins, and to modernize its facilities despite the availability of funding.

Nilo said the bureau was mandated to issue weather bulletins every six hours, but Parañaque Rep. Eduardo Zialcita dismissed his claim.

“In hours we can save lives,” he said.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman criticized the bureau for failing to procure necessary equipment, including a radar system, for which Congress had allocated P149 million to buy.

Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez blamed the weather bureau for failing to report the typhoon’s change in course in time.

The ferry’s captain was deceived into believing the journey was safe as the typhoon’s path was clearly far from his route, he said.

Two weeks after typhoon Frank ravaged the Visayas, 804 people are still missing, the Philippine Red Cross said.

Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Red Cross’ national chapter, said 312 of the missing were fishermen and the rest were those who died in the Sulpicio Lines ferry.

Sulpicio Lines officials said they were expediting talks with two international salvage companies to re-float the vessel.

The Board of Marine Inquiry yesterday appealed to seamen who survived the sea disaster two weeks ago to help determine what had really happened.

“We’ve heard that these seamen were on vacation at that time [and] boarded the ship as ordinary passengers. When the tragedy happened, they survived by using their skills, so we need them to appear before the board to get their testimonies,” said Capt. Benjamin Mata, vice chairman of the Board of Marine Inquiry.

Reports said the seamen were part of the survivors who washed ashore in Mulanay town, Quezon province, nearly 24 hours after the 24,000-ton vessel capsized.

Also yesterday, the court hearing Sulpicio’s complaint against the weather bureau gave the government agency 15 days to comment on the shipping company’s P4.65-million damage suit.

Gordon, who visited the towns devastated by the storm, said the Princess of the Stars tragedy had obscured other marine disasters.

In Cadiz town alone, 22 fishing vessels sank while the US PT Orion unmanned aircraft discovered at least 119 other fishing vessels that capsized, he said.

“There were three disasters,” Gordon said.

“First was typhoon Frank, second was the sinking of m/v Princess of the Stars, and the third was the forgotten disasters. These are the 621 fishermen who were affected and the almost 200 fishing vessels that sank. It is a tragedy because the families of these fishermen are left without food and the fishing industry in the affected areas is down.”

Red Cross personnel rescued 19 fishermen who were lost at sea for 12 days in Borongan, Eastern Samar.

Since the Philippine Coast Guard, Maritime Industry Authority and other government disaster management agencies were busy with the ferry, Gordon said, the Red Cross attended to victims of the “forgotten disaster.”

“We should be looking for solutions. Let us fix the problem instead of fixing the blame. You are a greater person if you help and you are a lesser person if you blame,” Gordon said, referring to some officials’ bickering over the ferry’s sinking.

Instead, government officials and agencies should give “dignity to the dead, closure to the living” by organizing post-mortem teams for identification and marking of bodies, he said.

At least 390 people have been killed by typhoon Frank, which brought torrential rains that caused flooding and mudslides.

More than 200 people were reported killed and 162 missing in Iloilo province, and flash floods in Iloilo City forced 30,000 people onto rooftops.