Ferry sinking highlights safety gaps in storm-battered Philippines

This week’s sinking of a ferry in the Philippines, at a cost of at least 40 lives, has given added urgency to calls for a probe of the maritime sector in an archipelago beset by similar disasters.

The Kim Nirvana had just left the port of Ormoc in the central Visayas region on Thursday when it turned on one side. Within hours, only the boat’s red hull was visible, with passengers trapped inside, the Coast Guard said.

Of the 173 passengers, 40 were confirmed dead and another 21 were unaccounted for.

Ferries are the backbone of transportation in the Philippines, which comprises more than 7,100 islands. Modern and large ferries interconnect the major ports, although smaller and often rickety boats serve secondary routes. The Kim Nirvana was the 14th major ferry accident in the country since 2000.

Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino, a cousin of the president, last month filed a resolution to address the spate of tragedies that have hit the sector, warning that the onset of the rainy season has raised the threat of further disasters in a country that is battered by storms each year.

“I reiterate my call to investigate whether our maritime vessels are seaworthy. Let us not wait that the sea tragedy in Ormoc will be repeated before reforms are made,” Aquino said in a statement Friday.

The “sweeping investigation” would determine the sea worthiness of maritime vessels, and is currently being studied for tabling by the senate committees on maritime accidents.

“The issues on the navigational experience of the concerned government agencies in handling the vessels as well as the training of the maritime officers at times of distress, and the seaworthiness of the vessel remained unanswered through the years,” said the resolution.

President Benigno Aquino’s spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, said that investigators have been ordered to speed up their work, even as search and rescue operations were continuing.

“The PCG (Philippines Coast Guard) has deployed a maritime casualty investigation team that is currently pursuing various avenues of inquiry, including possible overloading, capability of captain and its officers, load capacity of the vessel and others,” she said.

A senior government official told IRIN that the vessel was apparently modified, with an upper deck that would have made it harder to manoeuvre.

An initial check with the manifest showed that the number of passengers on the boat was below its legal limit, although it appeared overloaded with cargo, said the official on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

Corruption in provincial ports has been cited as a problem in previous disasters, with inspectors turning a blind eye to ferries that exceed their passenger and cargo capacities.

The Coast Guard has a system for monitoring vessels, but it is often ineffective, because skippers fail to call and check in, said Commander Arman Balilo, a spokesman in the capital Manila.

“The problem that we have now is that sometimes when these boats stop in the middle of sea they don’t call us,” he said. “The passengers become our main line of communication.”

Ricky Hora, spokesman for the Maritime Industry Authority, told IRIN that the agency has suspended operations of Kim Nirvana’s sister vessel pending results of the inquiry.

The Philippines was the site of the world’s worst peacetime naval disaster when, in 1987, the passenger ferry Dona Paz and an oil tanker collided, killing over 4,000 people.

A year later, Dona Marilyn, a sister ship of Dona Paz, sank after setting sail during a typhoon, leaving 389 passengers dead. In 2013, at least 114 passengers drowned when the Thomas Aquinas sank off the central island of Cebu.

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