THERE is a killer on the loose, and we have done nothing about it.
Since 1987, Sulpicio Lines—renamed Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. in 2009—has figured in maritime disasters that have claimed more than 5,000 lives.
In the latest incident, the company’s cargo vessel, the MV Sulpicio Express 7, collided with the MV St. Thomas Aquinas with 700 people on board, sinking the ferry in the waters off Talisay City, Cebu, Friday night. At least 31 people were killed, and 171 were still missing over the weekend. The accident was the fifth for a company that has somehow managed to avoid closure in the last 25 years, despite its dismal track record.
In December 1987, the company’s ferry, the MV Doña Paz, sank in the shark-infested waters of the Tablas Strait, after colliding with a cargo ship, the MT Vector. The estimated death toll of 4,375 far surpassed the 1,500 killed on the Titanic, and made the sinking the worst peacetime maritime disaster,
Less than a year later, in October 1988, the Doña Marilyn was caught up in a typhoon and sank, killing 389 of its passengers and crew.
In September 1998, the company’s MV Princess of the Orient, a passenger ferry, sank off Fortune Island, near Batangas province, killing an estimated 150 of its 388 passengers.
In June 2008, Sulpicio’s MV Princess of the Stars capsized off the coast of San Fernando, Romblon, at the height of a typhoon. Only 56 of the 862 on board survived. The rest – including those whose bodies were never found – were presumed dead.
The company’s chief executive and president Jordan Go says his company’s string of accidents had nothing to do with the collision on Friday night, but the statement ignores the importance of a public utility’s track record when determining its fitness for service.
While the Supreme Court eventually ruled that it was the owners of the Vector, which was deemed unseaworthy and manned by negligent crew and officers, that were responsible for the 1987 Doña Paz tragedy, the final judgment did nothing to address findings that the crew of the Doña Paz were ill-prepared to safeguard their passengers. Initial Coast Guard findings, in fact, said only one apprentice member of the crew was monitoring the bridge when the accident occurred, and that other officers were either drinking beer or watching television at the time.
The company’s other three disasters were caused by the vessels setting sail during typhoons.
None of this has a direct bearing on the circumstances of last Friday’s accident, of course, and we must await the results of an official inquiry—which is likely to outlast public outrage--before we can establish fault.
Still, we are stumped by a maritime regulatory system that allows such tragedies to continue, and which administers mere slaps on the wrists of companies that play fast and loose with the lives of Filipino sea-bound travelers.