Weeks after 800 plus people lost their lives, questions about the ferry and about it’s cargo continue to linger here in the Philippines.

The first question is why did the ferry leave port when Manila was under a Signal one and the destination port was under a Signal two.

Well, part of this is because the ship could ordinarily sail in a “signal two” type storm. But the Philippine Inquirer says that the Board of Marine Inquiry investigation heard reports that the Captain of the ship planned to reroute his ship to avoid the storm. The question is now: Why didn’t the Captain take this alternate and safer route.

Background for this question is that the typhoon was off the eastern Philippines, and was forecast to stay away from the main islands. However, after the ship left port, the hurricane turned west, hitting the central Visayas and went up through the center of main island of Luzon instead of staying off the coast.

There are more questions about why the ship’s Captain seemed unaware of the storm changing course. The company is pointing fingers at the local weather forecasting organization PAGASA, saying that the ship should have been warned that the typhoon had changed course. There is indeed problems in inadequate and out of date forcasting equipment, (which is now being ordered) but that ignores the fact that one presumes that the Captain should have been monitoring the weather. Did the Captain bother to check for updated forecasts, not waiting for the government weather organiztion to warn the ship?  Indeed, there are many ways to monitor weather, and anyone with a shortwave radio or cellphone could have discovered that the hurricane had changed course. Why wasn’t this done?

One of the sillier news stories of the day is a Senator saying that all passengers should be required to wear an electronic ID bracelet so that we can identify the dead (as if bodies in water for awhile wouldn’t fall apart and lose the bracelet). Yet this story ignores the fact that the ship didn’t even seem to have basic modern communications on board.

Which brings us to another question: Was there GPS or other modern communications equipment on the ferry?

The Saturday when the ferry was reported late, the local radio station was reporting cellphone texts coming from passengers that the ship was sinking and that they had put on life jackets. It wasn’t until Sunday that the ship was found. Part of the delay was the storm itself, and part was the lack of Coast Guard ships in the area, but the main reason was that no one was sure where the ship was located.

Again, from the Inquirer: 

“It is a mystery why a contract between the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and Thomson CSF NCS-France penned in 1998 for the purchase of a GMDSS has not yet materialized. We in the Senate will not let this grave sin of omission pass,” (Senator) Roxas said.

The GMDSS is a ship distress and safety communications system that requires all passenger and cargo ships over 300 tons on international voyages to be equipped with satellite and radio communications for sending and receiving distress alerts and for general communications.

A 2006 audit report showed that Thomson abandoned the project in 2006 due to a billing dispute.

This brings up all sorts of questions that I don’t have the expertise to answer. Was the contract billing dispute hinting that bribes were the problem, or just a disagreement on the price?

If there was not a government system to track passenger and cargo ships, was there any smaller device (like a simple GPS system similar to “OnStar”) that could have located the ship?

A third problem being brought up in the inquiry is that the Sulpicio Lines, which has had three major sinkings since 1980, has had 45 maritime accidents listed on Lloyd’s Maritime Information Database.

Again, this brings up questions if the company was keeping it’s ships repaired, or if it was hiring unqualified personnel. It also brings up questions on the Philippine government’s ability to monitor ship safety.

Finally, there is that pesticide.

One of the environmental stories to come out of the ferry disaster is that Del Monte is using a dangerous pesticide on it’s pineapple plantations. Del Monte claims that they are using it safely, and that they have the government approval to use the pesticide Endosulfan, which has been banned in 17 countries.

But there are questions on why a potentially dangerous cargo was aboard a passenger ferry, who put it on the ferry, if it was packed properly with adequate danger labels, and who approved of the shipment.

The good news is that it was packed safely, since once the issue was brought up, there has been monitoring of the ocean and there is no evidence of leaking. But the presence of this cargo is one reason that the ship will have to be carefully salvaged to remove both bodies and cargo. Sulpicio has contracted a foreign company to do the salvage, so one hopes that this danger to salvagers and the local fishing industry will be prevented.

In the meanwhile, another day, another typhoon.

At 2:00 a.m. today, Tropical Storm “HELEN” was estimated based on satelitte and surface data at 250 kms east of Basco, Batanes (18.7ºN 124.2ºE) with maximum sustained winds of 65 kph near the center and gustiness of up to 80 kph. It is forecast to move west slowly.

The Philippines gets a dozen or so each year.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. 

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