Murder by ship

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The families and friends of those who died in the sinking of Sulpicio Lines’ Princess of the Stars are understandably outraged at the shipping company. But they should be even more incensed at the corruption, inefficiency, and plain indifference of this country’s officials.

Sulpicio Lines is the same company that brought you the worst maritime peacetime disaster ever in the Philippines and the world, the MV Dona Paz collision, which killed some 4,000 people.

The MV Dona Paz collided on December 20, 1987 with the motor tanker MT Vector in the seas between Marinduque and Oriental Mindoro. With 59 crew members and, it later turned out, about 4,000 passengers, most of them not in the manifest, aboard, the MV Dona Paz caught fire and sank, killing all but 24 of its passengers.

It didn’t help that the Vector was carrying over 8,000 barrels of Caltex petroleum products, which ignited in the collision and caused both vessels to burn. An official inquiry later found the Vector to have been at fault and responsible for the disaster, although a court suit against Caltex—for supposedly shipping its products aboard an ill-equipped, poorly- manned vessel– did not prosper until it reached the Court of Appeals.

Sulpicio Lines could not escape public condemnation, since the Dona Paz was overloaded more than twice over the number of passengers (1,500) it could officially carry. The ensuing frenzy included criticism of the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority, which are tasked to see to the implementation of the rules governing the country’s inter-island shipping. Eventually, however, the furor died down, and demands that domestic passenger ships be closely inspected to ensure they’re complying with the rules, especially on the maximum number of passengers they can carry, went the way of all ningas-cogon passions in the country of our despair: i.e., in the cold ashes of memory.

Sulpicio Lines has continued operating since, we assume profitably. Otherwise it wouldn’t be in the business in the first place. Sulpicio Lines may even be on the threshold of even greater returns for whatever investments it has put in its ships, as air fare costs escalate and more and more people who would otherwise fly take to the seas, while those who couldn’t have afforded it even when air fares were lower have no choice.

As usual, the inevitable victims of such disasters as the sinking of the Princess of the Stars are the people who belong to the middle and “lower” classes: the very same people who collectively pay the most taxes and whose labor keeps offices and factories and farms running. Their death is an offense not only against their kin; it is also an assault on the entire nation. If our so-called leaders had any sense, they would categorize Murder by Ship among the most heinous of crimes in this country.

Every Philippine disaster, whether natural or man-made, victimizes the most numerous and most productive members of the population—workers, farmers, students, teachers, etc.– not only because they’re legion but also because their economic status automatically puts them in harm’s way, either via substandard housing a flood or a landslide can destroy, the kickback-built school buildings that collapse on their children’s heads in an earthquake, or the rust-buckets that pass for passenger ships in this archipelago of tears.

Because some 800 people are likely to have perished in the sinking of the Princess of the Stars, Sulpicio Lines is about to earn the distinction of owning both the ship involved in the worst maritime disaster ever, as well as the ship involved in the second worst—with Philippine seas being the venue for both.

But it’s the oddest thing. Only the kin of those who died or are likely to have died in the Princess of the Stars sinking are outraged, while much of the population goes about its business, and shrugs its collective shoulders in the awareness that no one—certainly not the government—is about to change anything.

It is this indifference—based on the lessons of sound experience– that has allowed the various disasters that have struck this country to be repeated. Sulpicio Lines would blame God and nature for the sinking of its ship. Human intervention, however, can make the impact of typhoons like Frank less destructive, and can even prevent the deaths that floods, landslides and other natural disasters can inflict.

Thus could the Princess of the Stars sinking have been prevented– quite simply if it had not sailed into the path of typhoon Frank. The ship captain has been blamed for that decision. But while errors in human judgment do occur, there are supposed to be systems in place to prevent one man’s error from leading to the death of hundreds.

Governments are supposed to provide those systems. But the Philippine Maritime Industry Authority immediately washed its hands of responsibility by declaring that the decision to sail during typhoons was that of the ship captain to make—a claim that indicts both existing rules as well as the “don’t blame us” mindset that infests government regulatory agencies, whose loose and cavalier attitude towards their tasks has again and again been demonstrated by the disasters, maritime or otherwise, that have again and again occurred in this country.

It’s easy enough to say that the mindset reflects an Asian contempt for human life. Certainly those who lost their kin won’t agree, but we need not debate that issue here. Rather should we look for the source of this attitude, so rampant in the bureaucracy, which on the ground has resulted in thousands of Filipino lives lost in the typhoon season as well as in summer, and in both land and sea.

Where can the source of that attitude be except in that of the country’s highest officials, hundreds of whom were in the United States with the putative President of this country, shopping in New York and Washington, and watching Manny Pacquiao’s latest Las Vegas fight while Filipinos were tearing at their clothes in grief over the death of their loved ones, and a huge environmental disaster threatened the livelihoods of thousands?

Sulpicio Lines may have committed a crime for which it deserves the harshest penalty, including its finally being barred from the business of transporting people to and from these islands. But so are the officials of this government responsible– and guilty of the highest crime of all: the indifference and callousness that kills more than a typhoon ever does.

(BusinessWorld)

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