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Whatever happened to … Wreck done by ‘Princess’

June 25, 2010 03:56:00
Eliza Victoria
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines — Two years after the MV Princess of the Stars sank, its wreck still lies at a depth of some 21 meters (70 feet) off Romblon, its hull protruding in the waters, ripples from it lapping at distant shores where relatives of its victim continue to seek justice.

The remains of more than 500 victims of the tragedy are believed still trapped inside the ship’s cabins and chapel.

Of its more than 800 passengers on that ill-fated day in 2008, only 32 survived.

According to the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) in Quezon City, there are currently 135 cases (71 in Metro Manila and 64 in Cebu City) in courts lodged by families of the victims suing the shipping company for millions of pesos in damages.

Upon the order of the Department of Justice, charges of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide were filed at the Manila Regional Trial Court (RTC) last year against Sulpicio Lines executive Edgar Go and ship captain, Florencio Marimon, whose death in the sinking has yet to be validated.

Go filed a motion for reconsideration but it was denied by acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra on June 8.

Sulpicio chief absolved

Agra also upheld the recommendation of a panel of state prosecutors to absolve Sulpicio president Enrique Go, executive vice president and chief executive officer Carlos Go, senior vice president and secretary Victoriano Go and first vice president Dominador Go.

Branch 51 of the Manila RTC is currently consolidating the records and documents from the other branches and will hold a hearing on Sept. 2.

Sulpicio Lines has sold the ship to Royal Jessan Petromin Resources Inc., which is salvaging the sunken vessel.

Change in corporate name

In February, Sulpicio changed its corporate name to Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. According to company vice president Harold Go, the change was approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

He said it was a way of starting anew, but dismissed suggestions that the move was in anticipation of being allowed to resume full operations.

As of March, only two of the company’s passenger vessels (MV Princess of the South and MV Princess of the Earth) and eight cargo vessels had been allowed to sail.

Families of the victims see the name change as “an indication that the respondent and its officers are doing everything to avoid their liability” to the victims.

However, the PAO office in Central Visayas said the change wouldn’t affect the damage claims and criminal charges against the company.

Maritime disasters

Since 1987, Sulpicio Lines has figured in several maritime disasters, including the world’s worst peacetime sea tragedy.

On Dec. 20, 1987, the MV Dońa Paz collided with a Caltex-hired oil tanker, MT Vector, at Tablas Strait dividing Mindoro and Marinduque, leaving more than 4,000 people dead.

On Sept. 18, 1998, Cebu-bound MV Princess of the Orient sank off Fortune Island in Batangas. In January 2008, the Cebu City RTC ordered Sulpicio to pay P6.2 million in damages to the heirs of Ernesto Unabia, one of the Princess of the Orient’s passengers whose body was never found.

Saying that bad weather alone did not cause the ship’s sinking, the court ruled that the ship’s skipper and crew were also to blame. Sulpicio Lines filed an appeal to the ruling just a little more than two weeks before the Princess of the Stars sank.

On June 20, 2008, the Princess of the Stars sailed from Manila at 8 a.m. on a 22-hour trip to Cebu City, carrying at least 832 passengers, including 121 crewmen, 31 infants and 20 children.

In spite of storm warnings, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) gave the ferry clearance to depart because it was over 23,000 tons with a capacity of 1,992 passengers.

Last contact

Marimon made his last contact with the Sulpicio office at noon the following day.

CPO Benito Vidal of the Southern Tagalog Coast Guard Station said his office received a distress signal from the ferry at 12:55 p.m., saying it had “engine trouble” and was “listing.”

The 23,800-ton vessel sank off Sibuyan Island as Typhoon “Frank” swept across the country.

A survivor, crew member Renato Lanorias, later recounted that the waves “were almost the size of mountains,” and that hysterical passengers jumped into the storm-tossed waters when the captain announced “abandon ship.”

Lanorias was able to get on one of the ship’s 14 lifeboats, and was rocked by waves for four hours before reaching land.

Only 32 people survived the tragedy, according to the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI), while some 300 bodies were recovered in search and retrieval operations.

‘Act of God’

On June 25, 2008, Sulpicio officials told the BMI that “an act of God”—not engine failure—sank the ferry.

Sulpicio lawyer Arthur Lim read during a hearing the shipping company’s Manila Port Capt. Benjamin Eugenio’s report, which was filed with the PCG.

“I am taking the initiative of filing this marine protest to report the unfortunate tragedy that befell MV Princess of the Stars and to publicly and solemnly protest against the wind and waves and the fortuitous event or act of God, particularly Typhoon ‘Frank,’ that was the cause of the frustration of the voyage and the loss of our good ship,” Eugenio said in his report.

Eugenio said the Princess of the Stars was structurally sound and stable when it left port.

The company also blamed the weather bureau for gross negligence, saying that inaccuracies in its forecast caused the ship to find itself in the eye of the storm, leading to its sinking.

Retrieval suspended

On June 27, 2008, the PCG suspended search, rescue and retrieval operations after discovering that the ferry was carrying the toxic pesticide endosulfan.

The cargo, owned by Del Monte Philippines Inc. and meant for its pineapple plantations, was in 400 25-kilo boxes stored in a 40-foot container van. The retrieval of the containers lasted over three months.

On Aug. 26, 2008, the BMI said in a 62-page report that Sulpicio Lines was responsible for the sinking and called for the suspension of its license to operate.

On Oct. 14, 2008, Manila RTC Judge Silvino Pampilo Jr. junked a P4.4-million damage claim of Sulpicio and Edgar Go against the weather bureau and its officials, finding no basis in its claim that “wrong forecasting” had caused the tragedy.

On June 25, 2009, upon the order of the justice department, charges of reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide were filed in the Manila RTC against Edgar Go and Marimon.

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