Monday, 23 June 2008

Star-crossed Star ship

Whenever disaster strikes, finger-pointing follows.

Holier-than-thous or know-it-alls – who in their desire to have their names or sound bites included in the running coverage of a disaster story – are quick to the draw in calling for an investigation or demand for heads to roll.

In PGMA’s publicity playbook – a disastrous incident means another opportunity to show she’s in charge. And the best way to get this message across is by showing her fangs in public and put that infamous “temper” to good use.

The pattern of events – which we saw in many incidents like the Guinsaugon landslide of 2006 and in the aftermath of super typhoon Milenyo last year – is again unfolding in the tragic capsizing of M/V Princess of the Stars.






(Aerial photos released by the Philippine Coast Guard Aviation Group)

Media was quick to feast on how the Commander-In-Chief berated Vice Admiral Willy Tamayo, the newly-installed commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard, during a teleconference with officials and members of the National Disaster Coordinating Council. La Gloria went ballistic on why coast guard and port officials allowed the ship to leave port despite inclement weather.

Speaker Prospero Nograles – proving to all and sundry that he really is a “Bomba King” – fired away with a statement demanding the cancellation of the franchise of shipping companies which are considered as “recidivists in terms of sea disaster records.” And what follows in the succeeding paragraphs of Kuya Raul Beltran’s story are quotes and snippets of statements from congressmen eager to give justice to the victims of this maritime tragedy.

Not to be outdone, Transportation Secretary Larry Mendoza came out with an earth-shaking announcement that he’s ordering the convening of a Board of Marine Inquiry.
Len Bautista, the DOTC undersecretary for water transport who ironically is a captain in the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary, vowed to conduct an investigation, but in the same statement has already pinned the blame on Marina.

The nerve of these creeps.
Before I dish out my take on this series of chest-thumping acts by our eminent public servants, which we expect to heighten once the House Committee on Transportation begins its "show," allow me to make a disclosure on why I’m making a fuss on this issue.

1. For close to five years, I covered the maritime beat for the Manila Chronicle as a correspondent for over 2 years and as shipping editor for another 2 years. I joined the Chronicle’s crack team of “shipping reporters” at the time maritime officials and industry stakeholders were tweaking the country’s maritime safety policies in the aftermath of the Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn mishaps.

Our team had a ringside view on how the likes of the late Paciencio “Boi” Balbon, then president of the Conference of Interisland Shipowners and Operators (now called the Domestic Shipowners Association) who became head of the Maritime Industry Authority when Sonny Garcia became transportation secretary; Vicente “Tet” Gambito, then vice president of Sulpicio Lines (he's now a blogger); Commodore Chuck Agustin, commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard who became general manager of the Philippine Ports Authority (he now heads the National Defense College of the Philippines); Undersecretary Valdecanas, the real work horse of the DOTC during Tita Cory's term, and a host of others collaborated and in many instances, crossed swords to find ways to avert a repeat of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster (the Dona Paz incident).
2. As an officer of the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary, I've seen how our coastguardsmen beat the odds to make our seas safe and save lives and properties at sea.
As their brother in unform, I’m duty-bound to help straighten out the distortion of information that at times like this only makes the job more stressful for Admiral Tamayo, Commodore Louie Tuazon (commander of the PCG-NCR-Central Luzon district) and Coast Guard spokesman, Lt. Cmdr Armand Ballilo.

Don't blame the Coast Guard

Admiral Tamayo -- a product of the US Coast Guard Academy -- was right in insisting that the Coast Guard is not at fault on why the ship was allowed to leave port.

After the Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn incidents, maritime officials came out with a set of guidelines that clearly spells out which types of vessels are grounded and which are allowed to set sail during stormy weather conditions.
The Princess of the Stars, which has a rated capacity of over a thousand passengers, was only carrying over 800 and is therefore, not overloaded when it embarked on its last voyage. The Coast Guard had no basis whatsoever, to prevent the vessel from leaving port.

Admiral Tamayo was trying to explain to GMA that under existing maritime safety guidelines, the Princess of the Stars is big enough to cut through rough seas – unfortunately, the ship’s engine conked out preventing it from running to the nearest harbour and seek shelter.

If I remember it right, a new set of guidelines was put in place after the 1998 Princess of the Orient tragedy. A copy of the revised guidelines signed by Admiral Damian Carlos in 2007 can be found on the website of ABS-CBN News.

During the watch of Vice Admiral Reuben Lista, there was a time that the Coast Guard was extra strict on vessel departures. There were a number of times that carte blanche grounding orders were issued even when the storm signal was only on the first level which smart alecks in the media feasted upon.

At one time, Admiral Lista and the entire PCG drew flak from the general public when they prevented ships from leaving port – because there was a storm signal – and the day went on with no rain drop falling from the sky. What followed was a strong lobby from the business sector for the Coast Guard to relax its guidelines with some even threatening to sue the PCG for the losses they claimed to have incurred.
Countless times, our poor Coast Guard would find itself in Catch 22 situations for doing or bungling its job to save lives and properties at sea.

Cheap points

Like Speaker Nograles and the other politicos, General Larry Mendoza, the policeman turned transport czar, attempted to score cheap publicity points when he announced that he has ordered the convening of the Board of Marine Inquiry. General Mendoza, you need not make this announcement as the BMI is automatically convened in cases like this. Lousy ka sir!

The Board of Marine Inquiry is expected to determine whether the ship was seaworthy at the time of the accident. Investigators, including master mariners, will pore over safety inspection reports and check on the licenses and competence of the ship’s officers and crew. The Board will interview survivors, and witnesses to get a picture on how and why the accident happened.

My two-cents advice to our blood-thirsty congressmen, hang fire and allow the BMI to do its job. You can have all the time in the world to make a circus out of this tragedy after all the facts are in.

Tragic reprise

Incidentally, the ill fate of the Princess of the Stars reprised that of its star-crossed sister ship, the Princess of the Orient in 1998.

Like the Princess of the Stars, M/V Princess of the Orient was a big interisland liner. Like most vessels in the Philippine domestic service, Princess of the Orient was bought second-hand from Japan.

No shipowner in the Philippines can afford to buy a brand new ship. Before the modernisation of the domestic shipping industry came to fore in the 1990s, ships ferrying passengers to interisland destinations were mostly made of wood. Steel-hulled ships were over decades old, rickety and small in size.
The need to modernise domestic shipping prompted the government in cooperation with banks and foreign funding agencies to come out with a scheme to help local shipping companies acquire better, safer “second hand” ships.
The initiative revolutionised interisland shipping. William Lines, Gothong Lines and Aboitiz Transport merged into the WG&A and launched the SuperFerry while Sulpicio and Negros Navigation went on expansion mode. It was also through this shipping modernisation programme that we saw the entry of fastcrafts in short interisland routes.

During its prime, the Princess of the Orient was considered one of the best ships that plied domestic routes. Princess of the Orient was one of Sulpicio’s answer to the famed SuperFerries of WG&A. Talo lang sa publicity ang Sulpicio since they don’t have a Sharon Cuneta to call on travellers to: “Sakay Na!”
About a year before the Princess of the Orient sailed its last in September 1998, the Princess of the Orient caught fire while docked at the Manila North Harbor. I rushed to the North Harbor to cover the incident and was able to board the then tightly-guarded ship as a “consultant” of Arnie Santiago, then the chief investigator of the Marina.
I haven’t seen Arnie’s final report on the Princess of the Orient sinking, but I believe the fire affected the ship’s seaworthiness, but that’s getting ahead of our story.

Again like the Star, the Orient was given clearance to set sail because it was heavy enough to withstand the expected strong waves that come with storm signal 1.

Arnie, who investigated the accident, said the Orient’s ballast – which is responsible for helping keep the ship’s balance – malfunctioned, causing the ship to list to starboard before eventually capsizing off Fortune island in Batangas. My hunch, the fire that struck the ship’s engine room could’ve had affected the ship's ballast.

Based on a survivor’s testimony which I read in one news site, the Princess of the Stars was adrift and was already listing when it was pummelled by huge waves off Romblon. The violent rocking of the boat snapped the cables used to latch the cargoes stowed in the ship’s hold causing the Star to lose its stability and eventually sink.

Need to modernise

There were reports that the Coast Guard and Sulpicio’s in-shore crew received the Star’s distress signal, and promptly tried to send out a search and rescue party.

Lt.Cmdr. Balillo was quoted saying that a Coast Guard SAR vessel was despatched to the Star's last point of contact, but it had to turn back due to strong waves.
Helicopters from the Air Force and the Coast Guard could not go airborne as the PAF’s Hueys (not even those upgraded as Huey 2s) and the PCG’s BO-105s are not capable of all-weather flight unlike the Jayhawks used by the US Coast Guard.



Rescue teams had to wait for the weather to clear out before moving out to sea. Retrieval operations had to stop at nightfall as our navy, coast guard and air force are not equipped for night-time operations. Geez!

This highlights the need for a modern, well-equipped Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard was detached from the Navy primarily so that it could modernise its assets as a civilian agency.
As a military unit, many funding agencies like the JICA could not extend assistance to the PCG.
It was after the Coast Guard’s separation from the Navy in the late 1990s that the modernisation program went on full steam.



Through counter-trade, the PCG was able to acquire state-of-the-art Tenix SAR vessels from Australia. The coming into service of the spanking new ships boosted the morale of the Coast Guard.
In one party aboard the BRP Edsa Dos (which was skippered by then Capt Willy Tamayo), Admiral Lista boasted that with the modernisation programme up and running, they could even afford to return some of its boats and ships to the Navy since these rickety cutters would only eat up on their maintenance and operating budget.


Admiral Lista was even looking forward to the acquisition of all-weather rescue helicopters to replace the PCG’s ageing BO-105s as well as much bigger and powerful SAR vessels.
The good admiral has long retired and at least three of his successors had also gone fishing, his chief of staff (Admiral Tamayo) is now at the helm and his dream of a modern Coast Guard remains a dream.





More lives could’ve been saved if only the PCG had long-range, all weather SAR aircraft like C-130s modified for SAR missions and Jayhawks used by the US Coast Guard that can bring rescue swimmers like Kevin Costner’s character in the movie The Guardian to disaster sites.


Meantime, all we can do for now is hope for a better-equipped Coast Guard and pray for the victims of this tragedy.

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