The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the country’s maritime situation were placed under the spotlight again last year when the 23,824.17-ton M/V Princess of the Stars, carrying 864 passengers and crew, capsized one nautical mile off Sibuyan Island in Romblon on June 21.
PCG records showed that there was more than a 100-percent increase in the number of incidents reported from the previous year, from 110 incidents in 2007 to 222 as of last Tuesday.
There was also a big jump in the number of casualties and missing persons compared to the previous year.
In 2007, there were 54 dead bodies recovered and 71 missing persons, but these figures skyrocketed to 463 and 925, respectively, last year.
Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said a large quantity of dead bodies and missing persons recorded this year mainly came from the sunken Princess of the Stars.
This was largely attributed to the frequency of tropical cyclones that entered the country this year.
The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) only recorded 13 cyclones in 2007 while 21 cyclones entered the country this year.
At present, there are 33 survivors, 548 have been confirmed dead and the 283 others are still missing in the Princess sinking.
Princess of the Stars, considered as the biggest vessel to ever sail on domestic waters, was owned by Sulpicio Lines Inc. (SLI) up until last Nov. 27, when it was sold to ship breaking firm Royal Jessan Petromin Resources, Inc. (RJPRI).
The problem was compounded by the revelation that apart from the number of human lives that were lost from the sea tragedy, 400 packs of endosulfan pesticide and various chemicals from Del Monte Philippines Inc. (DMPI) and Bayer Crop Science (BCS), respectively, were allegedly not properly declared or labeled when loaded on board the ship bound for Cebu.
This incident gained media attention, both local and international. It also caught the interest of the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight in the House of Representatives, who immediately called for a hearing.
Tamayo, who assumed the post as Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) commandant only last June 1, said they have furnished the House committees concerned with their Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) report showing that the sinking of the Princess of the Stars was the responsibility of both the ship’s master Captain Florencio Marimon Sr. and the ship’s owner SLI.
Tamayo believes that there were more reports of maritime incidents this year because of increased public awareness and better communication.
He said the public has to be vigilant and do its share. “Even if the government is doing all it can, we also expect the public to help by reporting to us violations being committed against the safety standard, overloading, and colorum vessels.”
There were eight other reported maritime incidents that happened last June 21 because of the strong winds, high waves and heavy rains brought about by typhoon Frank.”
One was the M/V Ocean Papa. It took the salvaging firm hired by the ship’s owner Ocean Container Lines Inc. five months to take the vessel apart just to remove the obstruction from the sea lanes near Antique province.
The ship was carrying 80 sealed drums of the toxic substance toluene di-isocyanate (TDI) when it was battered by strong winds and high waves, capsizing near Culasi Island of Antique province.
The capsizing of the ship reportedly claimed two of the vessel’s crewmembers, including ship captain Carlo Kho. Two others remain missing and at least 24 crewmembers were rescued.
Another vessel in the news was the M/B Don Dexter, which capsized off Magcaragit Island Uson, Masbate last Nov. 4 at 3:30 p.m., allegedly around 30 minutes after departure.
Survivors said the vessel suddenly encountered a local phenomenon called subasko (squall) that caused the accident.
The vessel was en route to Bulan, Sorsogon and was carrying 153 passengers, 101 of whom survived, 43 died and nine declared missing.
Two days later, another motorized banca overturned near Iloilo province after encountering rough seas caused by typhoon “Quinta.” The PCG reported 30 survivors and 14 fatalities.
Last Dec. 14, the 28.05-gross ton wooden-hulled M/B MaeJan, said to have been carrying excess passengers, sank off the coast of Appari, Cagayan.
It was supposed to carry 50 passengers only, but the PCG learned that there were 47 deaths, 45 survivors and six missing.
A day before, the cargo vessel M/V Ma. Lourdes, carrying 22,000 bags of cement, departed Iligan at 9 p.m. and was on its way to San Jose, Mindoro.
However, at around 7:03 p.m. of Dec. 16, the PCG Action Center received information that the starboard (right side) engine of the vessel malfunctioned and that the ship was only running using its portside (left side) main engine.
Their situation worsened because of bad weather, forcing it to tilt three degrees. The crew sent distress signals before abandoning the steel-hulled ship.
On Dec. 17, the M/V Maruja carrying three Spanish divers and three Filipino guides experienced engine trouble while they were near Caluya Island in Antique. Lying dead on the water for 31 hours, the vessel traveled a distance of 45 nautical miles and reached Matanabis Island in Palawan.
The PCG received information only last Dec. 24 that 16 fishermen on board the F/B Kigi Super Cocoy also experienced engine trouble near Palawan. Only nine of its passengers were rescued by passing M/T Sun Investor while seven others, who boarded a lifeboat, remain missing.
Tamayo said the more than 200 maritime incidents that happened in year 2008 are an indication that there is a need to focus on the state of maritime transportation.
This string of maritime incidents raised a call for review of sea routes, particularly the “short trips,” a study of the current safety equipment, and checking of the seaworthiness of wooden-hulled ships.
The Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) also arranged for the deputization of other agencies, such as the local governments, the Philippine Navy (PN), the Philippine National Police Maritime Group (PNPMG), to augment Coast Guard personnel.
The Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands but the PCG only has 5,000 personnel, with additional 1,000 personnel still undergoing training and would only be joining the service by next year.
The PCG has five area commands, 64 districts and 192 detachments nationwide.
But despite the additional manpower, the PCG is still sorely undermanned, with their numbers not even enough to assign one PCG personnel to one island.
In a previous interview, Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza said he is targeting 25,000 PCG personnel to strengthen the agency.
Modernization is key
Tamayo said the PCG would embark on projects and programs to improve their service by next year.
One of the projects launched during their 107th anniversary last October was the modernization of its communication facility to improve the capability to respond to maritime accidents.
This would be accomplished with the help of a grant from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). They hope to complete the project by late next year.
This will further enhance the agency’s capability to monitor and track vessels, and thus be able to improve response time to marine casualties or accidents, monitor maritime traffic, and have quicker response in conducting rescue operations.
Tamayo said they are also contemplating setting up two PCG-Greater Maritime Access (GMA) Search and Rescue (SAR) Bases, one in Romblon and another in Cebu.
Romblon was chosen because it is strategically situated in the crossroads of domestic shipping lanes, and Cebu was selected because it is the hub of maritime activities in Central Philippines.
The PCG also intend to put up a four-hectare Support Base in Mactan Island where the buoys, beacons and other navigational equipment that would be manufactured there would be utilized all over the country.
They are also hoping to purchase two buoys/Lighthouse Tender vessels.
The PCG is also lobbying for the passage of House Bill 5151, or the proposed Philippine Coast Guard Act, that seeks to expand the powers and functions of the Coast Guard and define its organizational structure and personnel administration. –Evelyn Macairan and Rainier Allan Ronda, Philippine Star