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The ferry began its journey from the port of Manila on 20 June 2008, heading to Cebu City. Typhoon Fengshen had made landfall at Samar Island earlier the same day, but Princess of the Stars was permitted to sail because she was ‘large enough to stay afloat in the typhoon's periphery’.
However, Fengshen unexpectedly changed course at night, entering the ferry’s path. By 11:30 pm, the Philippine Coast Guard had issued a directive prohibiting navigation for all ships.
The next day, shortly before noon, the ferry sent out a distress signal, but the contact was lost shortly after. Sulpicio Lines asked for help from vessels sailing nearby, but received no response, while the Philippine Coast Guard could not immediately proceed because of heavy weather.
Survivor reports after the tragedy indicated that, at about 11:30, passengers had been told to put on life jackets and, some minutes later, the Captain gave the order of abandonment.
At about 12:00, the ship began to tilt. Many people jumped into the water, others boarded life rafts. Many of them were not wearing life jackets. Approximately one hour later, the ship capsized.
Although reports vary concerning the exact number of passengers onboard, the latest official estimation is that the ship was carrying 870 people: Sulpicio’s manifest recorded a total of 111 crew members and 755 passengers - though there were some more not included in the manifest – comprising also children and infants.
Of these, only 56 survived, bringing the tragic toll to 814 fatalities. Some of them are still missing and subsequently are presumed dead.
Within the first three days following the accident, only 115 bodies had been recovered. By November 2008, the number had climbed to 350, leaving however an additional 500 to be found. Search continued through 2010, when a further 47 sets of human remains were recovered.
During the recovery efforts, most of the bodies were found floating inside the ship wreck, as they were trapped when she suddenly tilted.
“They may have been caught wherever they were at the particular time that the vessel changed its position,” a navy spokesman had told Reuters at that time.
In its official report on the aftermath of the accident, the Philippines Board of Marine Inquiry indicated human error as key cause of the accident, stressing specifically the Captain’s poor judgement on the risk associated with navigation in stormy weather. The Captain, still missing and presumed dead, failed to take sufficient evasive action to save lives of people onboard, the report notes, despite sailing in a collision course with the upcoming typhoon.
The immediate cause of the capsizing of MV Princess of the Stars was the failure of the Master to exercise extraordinary diligence and good seamanship thereby committing an error of judgment that brought MV Princess of the Stars in harm's way into the eye of Typhoon Frank,
…the official report reads.
However, the victims' families accused the owner company and the Philippine authorities of negligence in allowing the ship to sail despite the inclement weather. Sulpicio Lines' claimed that the ship was never advised by the Coast Guard that it was not safe to sail.
Most importantly, the shipping firm was considered negligent for its failure to ensure safe navigation of the ship and passengers.
Survivor reports afterwards revealed, inter alia, that lifeboats were tightly lashed to the deck, making their deployment difficult amid the emergency.
In its report, BMI recommended that Marina "consider the suspension of the Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) of Sulpicio Lines in accordance with existing regulations.”
On the aftermath
Sulpicio Lines offered to pay the families 200,000 pesos ($4,500) each, by way of compensation.
At this point, it is notable that the company has been involved in several other maritime casualties, including the Dona Paz sinking, which is the deadliest ever peacetime shipping disaster, with 4,386 fatalities. It is estimated that four marine tragedies involving Sulpicio vessels have resulted in death of about 5,000 people in the last decades.
As a result, in 2015, the CPC of Sulpicio Lines was suspended. Now, the company, operates under different name and is limited in cargo services.
Did you know?
Six days after the accident, the recovery process was jeopardized by the the discovery that, in addition to almost 900 people, 10,000 kilos of endosulfan were carried in a 40-foot container onboard, while four other dangerous cargoes were carried in another 10-foot container onboard. Notable is that the transport dangerous goods on passenger vessels is illegal in the Philippines.
Specifically, endosulfan is a neurotoxic organochlorine insecticide and it is highly acutely toxic. It is banned in the European Union, Cambodia, and several other countries, while its use is restricted in other countries, including the Philippines.
Sulpicio Lines sued Del Monte Philippines for failing to declare a cargo of the dangerous pesticide endosulfan that was onboard, but the latter denied it.
A salvage team, comprising Titan Salvage and local partners, began recovery operations in September 2008, which were completed on 11 October. The salvage team drilled into the ship's hull to remove the ship's fuel, and this phase was completed by 17 October, with 200,000 liters recovered.
However, in their final environmental assessment report on the incident, the European Commision, UN, UNEP and OCHA, note:
Based on observations made and information available during the time of the joint EU/UN expert assessment mission, there appears to be no major leakage of toxic chemicals from the capsized ‘Princess of the Stars’ ferry.
What is worth-wondering in this case, is why the Captain decided to sail that evening despite the weather conditions.
Sulpicio claimed that the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) was liable -and sued it- for negligence regarding the inefficient forecasting on the path of Typhoon Fengshen, which might explain somehow the Captain’s decision.
However, others say that typhoon warnings were in effect at the time of sailing, with everyone agreeing that the ship should have never sailed in the first place. In addition, the Philippine’s President Gloria Macapagal Arrooyo demanded explanation from port authorities with respect to this serious casualty.
Either it is about a reckless decision by the Captain relating to overconfidence and lack of proper risk assessment, or it is about an inadequate forecasting by relevant authorities, the ever-present casualty factor of human error is once again highlighted in this accident.
Notable is that, after the incident, the Philippine government tightened regulations on sailings during storms.
Moving further, international media reports suggested that safety procedures were insufficient onboard the ill-fated ship. According to eyewitnesses, many people still weren’t wearing life vests when the vessel overturned, while “crewmembers were more concerned with their own safety than with helping passengers,” BBC reported. The safety video lacked proper information and advice ahead the emergency, while lifeboats were tightly lashed to the deck and difficult to be dispatched.
These facts may not be so surprising when we are thinking of another similar case involving a Sulpicio-owned ferry: In September 1998, the ‘Princess of the Orient’, was given clearance to sail out of the port of Manila during a typhoon, encountered rough seas and winds, and eventually sank off the Batangas Coast, killing 150 people. BMI investigation found the master of the ship guilty of erroneous maneuvers and the crew responsible for the substandard lashing of the cargo which resulted in its deadly shifting.
When considering the facts of the two accidents, the above become an interesting example of how ‘learn from the past’ is not -but maybe should be- applied in maritime industry.
“With both ships owned by the same company, it is eerie that they had similar circumstances during their final voyage. On second thought, was it eerie or unsurprising?,” says Ruffy Biazon, a former member of the Philippine House of Representatives.
Timeline of the deadliest shipping disasters in the Philippines
- Dec 1987 - A total of 4,386 die in world’s worst peacetime shipping disaster, after Dona Paz and an oil tanker collide off Mindoro Island.
- Oct 1988 - Dona Marilyn, sister ship of Dona Paz, sinks off Leyte province, killing around 300.
- July 1993 - 279 pilgrims drown when an overloaded wooden temple, mounted on three boats, collapses during a religious festival as it is being towed along the Bocaue river, 20 km (12 miles) north of Manila.
- Dec 1994 - Ferry Cebu City collides with Singapore oil tanker, killing more than 140.
- Sept 1998 - Almost 200 die when the ferry 'Princess of the Orient', sister ship of Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn, sinks in stormy seas near Cavite and Batangas.
- April 2000 - At least 138 drown after the ML Annahada sinks off Jolo island in the southern part of the country.
- February 2004 - Superferry 14 catches fire near Manila Bay, killing 116 people. Abu Sayyaf claims responsibility, saying a suicide bomber sabotaged the boat to protest ill treatment of Muslim communities.
- June 2008- Princess of Stars sinks 3 km from Sibuyan island, killing about 800 people.
- Sept 2009- SuperFerry 9 sank off Zamboanga Peninsula killing 10 people.