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Survivor: Captain delayed decision to abandon ship

First Posted 11:41:00 06/24/2008

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CEBU CITY, Philippines - At least 37 survivors have been found so far as rough seas slowed down efforts to go near the capsized MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, Romblon.

One can only guess how many of the ship?s over 800 passengers and crew are trapped inside the vessel.

Chances of survival inside the overturned ship dimmed by the hour as strong waves continued to pound the area keeping rescue ships at bay.

?We?re not ruling out that somebody there is still alive,? coast guard chief Wilfredo Tamayo said. ?You can never tell.?

He said officials have to plan the best way to get inside ? either with divers from below or by drilling a hole in the hull. Rescue workers would have to operate carefully. The vessel was carrying about 200,000 liters of bunker oil that could leak out and pollute the sea.

A US Navy ship carrying search-and-rescue helicopters was expected to arrive from Okinawa late Monday, and a P-3 maritime surveillance plane was also sent.

Sulpicio Lines Inc. will compensate families of casualties P200,000 each as passengers were covered by accident insurance, said lawyer Manuel Espina in Cebu. Survivors were urged to submit their claims, including details of lost items, for processing.

Espina said search and rescue operations will continue. As of 6 p.m., the company posted names of 37 survivors. A group of 28 was able to reach the shore of Mulanay town in Quezon Sunday morning.

Late order

A woman, whose lifeboat drifted to a coastal village in eastern Quezon province, said the order to abandon ship on Saturday afternoon was delayed, turning a storm-tossed sea into a graveyard.

Susan Lisbo, a resident of Novaliches, Quezon City, said the ship captain's declaration to abandon ship was already "too late."

"The ship was already heavily tilted to the left," said Lisbo in between medical checkups at the Quezon Medical Center in Lucena.

Lisbo was one of 28 survivors aboard a single life boat that drifted to the coastal village of Ibabang Yuni in Mulanay town at around 9 a.m. Sunday.

The 23,000-ton ferry M/V Princess of the Stars sailed from Manila Friday on a 22-hour trip to Cebu City.

A revised count released on Monday by management said the vessel was carrying 724 passengers, including children, 113 crew members and 27 field marshals or a total of 864 people.

The ferry capsized off Sibuyan Island in the central province of Romblon early evening Saturday.

Lisbo recalled that less than one hour before the announcement to abandon the ship, she already sensed that something was wrong.

"The ship was tilted and no longer returning to its natural floating position. I sensed that something was wrong. It was now different," she said nearly in tears in her recollection of the painful moments.

Then she heard a voice from the public address system: "Watchmen, watchmen, please proceed to the bridge!"

Shortly thereafter, she said, she heard commotion and shouting of passengers from all over the ship.

"There was no announcement yet to abandon the ship but we're already focused to go straight to the exit to secure our safety, wearing our lifejackets on," Lisbo said.

When the abandon the ship call was finally given at about noontime Saturday, she saw her cousin and companion Editha Ybanez jump first but her back hit the steel railings.

Afraid that she might also suffer the same fate, Lisbo said she waited for the water to reach her level before she made the jump and finally joined the company of the rest of the survivors aboard life rafts.

"I don't know where my cousin is. I pray that she's also safe elsewhere," she said, as she finally broke in tears.

Franchise

Meanwhile, congressmen lost no time placing the blame for the sea disaster on the vessel owner, Sulpicio Lines, and the Philippine Coast Guard that allowed the vessel to sail despite weather bureau warnings of stormy seas in the Visayas.

Speaker Prospero Nograles singled out Sulpicio Lines, saying the maritime company had not learned from its past three accidents in the seas.

In a statement, the House leader said the franchises and licenses of recidivist shipping lines who repeatedly figured in maritime disasters should be canceled.

"It's really unthinkable that after all these years, we have not learned a lesson from the Doña Paz tragedy. Strike three, even in baseball or softball means you're out," Nograles said.

Nograles was referring to the sinking of the MV Dona Paz in 1987, the MV Dona Marilyn in 1988 and the MV Princess of the Orient in 1998. All are vessels of Sulpicio Lines.

"Three or more disasters on the same shipping company is no longer a coincidence. So why are these sailing coffins still running in our seas?" Nograles said.

"It's time to cancel franchises or permits of those responsible," he said.

Nograles also said that government regulators should be held accountable if they were likewise found at fault for the tragedy.

"Heads should roll if government regulators are found incompetent and negligent of their sworn duties to the public," he said.

Iloilo Representative Ferjenel Biron, chair of the House committee on legislative franchises, said on Monday that the company's franchise to transport passengers and goods via the high seas could be revoked if found to have violated conditions of its privilege.

Biron, however, called for a thorough investigation on what actually transpired that led to the tragedy at sea.

"We can always review the franchise of Sulpicio Lines. If there are violations we can impose sanctions, including revocation of their franchise," Biron said in a telephone interview.

"We have to have a thorough investigation. First off, they were allowed to sail by the Philippine Coast Guard. It is now up to the Coast Guard to explain why they (were) allowed to sail," Biron said, referring to the stormy weather warned by PAGASA (weather bureau) over the weekend.

Bacolod City Representative Monico Puentevella said his committee on transportation will have this investigated when Congress resumes session in July 28.

?We will work to punish responsible people behind this sea tragedy," Puentevella said. /INS, AP with reporter Nilda Gallo


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