16 December 2008

When Will We Ever Learn?

Photo courtesy of PAF
About six months ago, MV Princess of the Stars sunk off the coast Sibuyan Island in Romblon amid bad weather and drowning close to 600 of its passengers. Last month, a cargo ship sank in rough seas north of Cagayan, and passing vessels plucked 16 of 20 people from shark-infested waters. Weeks earlier, separate storms capsized two passenger boats in the central Philippines, drowning more than 50 people.

Late in the evening of 13 December 2008, Sunday, an overloaded ferry capsized just short of its destination in rough seas in the northeastern Philippines, causing terrified passengers to leap into the sea. At least 23 people drowned and 33 others are still missing.

The wooden-hulled M/B MaeJan, traveling from Calayan islands in the Luzon Strait, encountered strong waves and currents. The eight-hour journey to buy Christmas food and other supplies turned into the country's latest sea accident after the boat flipped over just about half a mile (kilometer) from its destination in Aparri town in northeastern Cagayan province.

Authorities reported that nearly 100 passengers jumped into the chilly water after waves broke the ferry's bamboo outrigger, causing it to bob wildly. Coast guard and navy vessels, backed by air force helicopters, were searching for 33 people still missing, but bad weather was hampering the effort.

Most of the 46 survivors swam to shore in Aparri, where police and villagers found them shivering close to midnight. The dead — including a 1-year-old boy and a town councilor — were taken to funeral parlors, where relatives gathered to identify them. No one claimed the boy's body.

It is understandable that tropical storms and badly maintained boats are often the cause of sea accidents in the sprawling Philippine archipelago.

What is unforgiveable is that there was no government official from either the coast guard, MARINA, maritime police, ports authority or even the Bureau of Customs (BOC) present at the port of origin who could have prevented the 28-ton Maejan from sailing. Not one of these agencies was able to enforce the safety regulations.

They were not even able to warn the ferry operator and the local government official about an approaching storm from the Pacific with winds of up to 60 miles (95 kilometers) per hour. Even if the state weather bureau reported that Tropical Storm Dolphin was still away from the eastern Philippines, precaution should have been taken to prevent a vessel capable of carrying only 50 to sail with close to a hundred passengers.

If somebody will ask them now why they did nothing to prevent the tragedy, they will most probably make excuses again. The official line would go like this, "it is not part of our jurisdiction and mandate" or "we do not have enough personnel to assign to a coastal town of 17,000".

The concerned government agencies may even try to deflect attention from them by announcing to the media that criminal charges will be filed against the owner and surviving crew. However, unofficial reports had it that the owner, Amy Tan Arellano, was one of those who were killed. So, what now? Should we wait for another tragedy to happen before we move those fat government executives from their air-conditioned offices and make them work on the field where they were supposed to be?