Cebu collision toll now 55

CEBU CITY - Age of sea vessels was mentioned as a main factor in sea accidents where the latest that occurred last Friday left 55 dead - 51 passengers and four crew - and 65 still missing - 59 passengers and six crew - as of yesterday.

As a consequence of the collision with a cargo vessel, MV Sulpicio Express Siete, and eventual sinking of the MV St. Thomas Aquinas, the entire province of Cebu was placed in a state of calamity following an oil spill affected more than 3,000 hectares of the sea waters and contaminated a 400-hectare mangrove plantation in the coastal towns of Cordova in Mactan Island.

Cebu Gov. Hilario Davide III said the state of calamity was announced. Calamity funds will be released by the affected towns and areas.

Lawmakers at Batasan did not waste time to call for a special congressional inquiry on this incident as they strongly proposed the rolling of heads both in concerned government agencies for "ineptitude and lack of concern" and from shipping firms for implementing safety-at-sea measures.

St. Thomas is owned by 2GO Shipping while Sulpicio Express is a Philippine Span Asia (formerly Sulpicio Lines) vessel.

11 Towns Affected

As of 11 a.m. yesterday, the latest advisory showed that PCG has rescued 750 passengers in the vicinity of Lawis Ledge off Talisay City where search and rescue operations are ongoing.

Cdr. Armand Balilo, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), said that yesterday, 10 more bodies were recovered by divers who were faced with difficulty as they faced the challenge of spilt oil, a cargo of the St. Thomas.

The ferry was carrying 20 tons of diesel and 120 tons of bunker fuel when it collided with Sulpicio Express Friday night. The passenger ship was well under water within 30 minutes' time.

"Eleven coastal barangays are now affected by an oil spill and a team is assessing the extent of the oil spill in the area," Balilo said. Its shorelines were drenched in thick sludge.

Lax Regulations

At the Batasan, Quezon City Rep. Winston Castelo demanded the immediate suspension, revocation or cancellation of the license of Sulpicio Express 7, presumed as the erring vessel in the collision.

But Kabataan Partylist Rep. Terry Ridon said that both Marina Administrator Maximo Mejia Jr. and Philippine Coast Guard Commander Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena will have to be held answerable for the Talisay sea collision that resulted in the death of 38 persons.

Last June, two persons died after MV Mt. Carmel owned by Medallion Shipping Lines sank off Burias Island.

"It is ironic for an archipelago like the Philippines to have lax water transport regulations. It is time for Congress to look into this issue to prevent future disasters of even greater magnitude," Ridon said.

Decrepit Vessels

Ridon said both the PCG and Marina should explain why it allowed sea vessels above 40 years to sail, saying that a ship's maximum life span is only 25 years.

"The fact that we are allowing 40-year old ferries like MV St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that something is amiss in the supervision and regulation of water transport vessels in the country. A rigorous review of MARINA's performance as a regulatory body is in order," Ridon said.

Castelo, chairman of the House Committee on Metro Manila Development, said Marina, the regulator agency for shipping, must conduct a parallel management review of the shipping firms involved in the latest sea mishap.

Chemical Dispersant

Twelve PCG divers from Manila and MEPU (Marine Environmental Protection Unit) teams were also focused on marine environmental damage this incident could bring.

Almost immediately, the PCG placed oil spill booms and applied chemical dispersant even as they were faced with the challenge that the slick spread fast in the waters.

Rear Admiral Luis Tuason Jr., PCG vice commandant for operations, said that because of its depth underwater, PCG vessels' anchors can only be lowered to 100 feet. The depth of the sunken vessel must be approximately 108 feet.

PCG divers were also conducting underwater search for the leak in the ship to plug, mitigate further and contain the oil spill.

Parallel Probes, Checks

Coast Guard authorities were set to convene the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI), also headed by Tuason, to investigate this tragic collision.

Both the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) and PCG will conduct parallel probes.

Tuason confirmed that the vessels' two captains and some crew members will be summoned.

While, normally, the other fleet members of a shipping firm are grounded, 2GO's MV St. Anthony de Padua and MV St. John Paul were allowed to sail.

Philippine Span Asia's MV Princess and MV Span Asia were likewise cleared of deficiencies for sailing by MARINA. (With a report from AFP)