- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

CEBU, Philippines — A collision of ferryboats in Manila Bay that killed at least 25 passengers earlier this week has reignited calls to crack down on a maritime industry plagued by corruption and inadequate safety regulations.

“Heads will roll,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vowed as she met with survivors and the families of victims at Coast Guard headquarters. “These perennial accidents can and must be stopped.”

The waters surrounding the Philippines, a sprawling archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, have been the scene of some of the worst disasters in maritime history.

In 1987, the Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker off the island of Mindoro, killing more than 4,000 passengers in what is considered the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Its sister ship, Dona Marylin, sank off the central province of Leyte a year later, killing 300. Hundreds of lives are lost every year in maritime disasters in the Philippines, where about 60 percent of the population uses a mostly aging fleet of more than 40,000 boats to ply the seas among and around the islands.

Many of the boats have been decommissioned in other, more developed countries, such as Japan, and refurbished and put back into service here.

Despite the president’s call to crack down on the industry, other officials in the Philippines say similar calls in the past have done little good.

“The investigation will again end up in denials, buck-passing or even finger-pointing by those agencies of government charged with the maintenance of safety of life at sea, as has been our sorry experience with previous maritime tragedies,” said Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, who survived a ferryboat collision as a child.

Maritime-safety experts say many ship owners are unwilling or unable to pay for regular maintenance of their vessels. The problem is compounded by corrupt maritime officials, some of whom accept bribes from shipping operators to allow overloaded passenger ships to sail.

There have been a few high-profile prosecutions, but they usually have targeted captains or junior officers rather than wealthy, politically connected ship owners.

While overcrowding did not seem to play a role in the disaster that occurred Sunday, many victims and survivors from the Manila-bound San Nicolas were not listed among the 207 names on the ship’s manifest.

The wooden-hulled ferry collided with a huge steel-hulled “superferry” in Manila Bay during a storm that limited visibility.

After interviewing survivors, Philippine coast guard officials believe there may be about 30 passengers still missing. And with bad weather interfering with rescue operations the past four days, there appears to be little hope that more survivors will be found.

While an official investigation won’t be completed until the middle of June, the coast guard has relieved two officers in Palawan, a far western island where the San Nicolas started its journey, for allowing extra passengers to board the boat.

The Philippines has earned a particularly bad reputation for maritime safety due to disasters such as the Dona Paz, which claimed nearly three times as many lives as the sinking of the Titanic.

But the safety records of China, Bangladesh, Indonesia and many other Asian nations also raise concerns with maritime officials.

While regional records aren’t kept, experts say as many as 1,500 persons a year die in ferryboat disasters across Asia. Many more probably perish in smaller accidents that are never reported.

Maritime officials say enforcement of safety rules, particularly limits on passenger loads, is the key to saving lives here and in other Asian nations. They cite Hong Kong, where more than 150,000 people ride ferries every day, as a case in point.

Vessels there are subjected to regular and rigorous inspections, and operators face heavy fines and the revocation of their licenses for safety violations. Also, officials there generally can’t be bribed.

“What’s needed in the Philippines is the political will to enforce the rules and see that punishments are meted out to those who break them,” said one maritime expert. “That hasn’t been the case in the past.”

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