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‘License for suspension’

First Posted 13:35:00 08/27/2008

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MANILA, Philippines ? The Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI)has recommended the suspension of Sulpicio Lines? license to operate.

The ship owner was held liable for the June 21 sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars that cost the lives of over 800 people.

The BMI, which probed the disaster, also recommended revoking the licenses of the Cebuano ship captain, Florencio Marimon Sr., who is among the hundreds still missing, as well as the port captains of Cebu and Manila.

The recommendation was submitted to the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina).

?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 BMI said in its report. There was no immediate comment from Sulpicio management.

Repeated calls made to the mobile phone of Ma. Victoria Lim - Florido, Sulpicio legal counsel, were not answered.

Representatives of Sulpicio did not attend the serving of the report yesterday at the BMI office in Manila. A copy was sent to the shipping firm at its North Harbor office in Manila.

The BMI recommended to the Marina to ?consider the suspension of the Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) of SLI (Sulpicio Lines Inc.) in accordance with existing laws, rules and regulations.?

Investigating committee panel chairman Rear Admiral Ramon Liwag explained that the CPC, which allows operations of shipping companies, covers all the ships of the company.

?The shipping firm is found negligent for its failure to exercise its duty in ensuring that they transport passengers and cargo safely to (their) destination,? Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Armand Balilo said, quoting the executive summary of the BMI.

Dr. Prisco Nilo, chief of the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration, which Sulpicio has tried to blame for the ferry sinking, was also given a copy of the report.

The business sector in Cebu warned of disruption in sea travel and the economy of the Visayas and Mindanao, which depends on ships to transport goods and ferry passengers.

?If the (BMI) decision pushes through, it will mean a big blow to the business sector, considering that Christmas Season is coming,? said Robert Go, past president of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI), who owns a chain of retail stores.

Sulpicio Lines, the second biggest cargo carrier in the country, accounts for 40 percent of all cargo movement across the country.

The Princess of the Stars, with more than 800 passengers and crew, capsized and sank off Sibuyan Island in Romblon province when it sailed into the path of typhoon ?Frank? after leaving Manila for Cebu City even after public storm signals had been raised.

Only 52 of the 825 passengers and crew of MV Princess of the Stars survived the tragedy. At least 312 bodies were so far recovered. The rest were declared missing and presumed dead.

In a 62-page report, the BMI recommended to the Marina the suspension of Sulpicio's CPC that allows operations of shipping companies.

The suspension will cover all Sulpicio ships, not just passenger vessels.

?Though the SLI has several vessels, all these are run by a single company. So any lack of skills among the decision makers is therefore a deviation from the Quality Safety Management Manual,? Liwag of the BMI told reporters during the promulgation of the board's recommendations on Tuesday.

In endorsing the report of the BMI to the Department of Transportation and Communication, Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said the SLI should be ?held accountable administratively and further investigated for possible criminal liabilities.?

But Liwag pointed out that the board was mandated only to determine the cause of the sinking and make recommendations. It cannot enforce its recommended actions.

The BMI blamed human error for the sinking and took the company to task for failing to stop the ship captain from sailing despite the typhoon signals hoisted over the ship's route and for failing to monitor the movement of the ship as it faced the wrath of Typhoon Frank.

The BMI found the ship captain, as well as the port captains in Manila and Cebu, negligent.

The report said Cebu Port Captain Nestor Ponteres not only failed to monitor the condition of the vessel during the ?critical moment from 7:20 a.m. to 9 a.m. where the vessel may need immediate assistance? but also failed to immediately report to the PCG ?when the company lost contact with the vessel.?

The BMI also said Manila Port Captain Benjamin Eugenio was ?not aware of the revised guidelines on the movement of vessels during heavy weather? which could have instructed him to discourage the ship captain from sailing.

The BMI also found SLI officials accountable. It said the president and chief executive officer of the SLI was responsible for failing to supervise their employees. The company's first vice president was also found negligent for allowing the ship captain to sail despite the typhoon warnings.

Robert Go said that suspending Sulpicio's operations would create ?undue economic imbalance and difficulties? for the Visayas and Mindanao.

This would worsen the shortage of cargo vessels plying the Manila-Cebu route, he said. He pointed out that some container vans had to wait for two months on land before these could be loaded onto ships because the cargo vessels were always full.

Go said that if Sulpicio vessels would not be allowed to sail, there would be a shortage of food products and merchandise especially during the holiday season.
Last year, he added, some merchandise intended for Christmas arrived in January. With the suspension of Sulpicio vessels, the delay may even reach February or March, he added.

?Supermarkets will lack fast moving items such as milk, beverage products, noodles, canned goods and detergent,? said Go.

This would create inflationary increases in prices because of low supply of products. Many allied industries such as trucking, towing, barging will also be affected because they are sub-contractors of shipping firms like Sulpicio.

Go urged the BMI to be more realistic and prudent and to weigh its decision against its adverse economic impact.

Rey Calooy, president of the Filipino Cebuano Business Club Inc., said 90 percent of the grocery items in Cebu come from Manila. The FCBC is composed of more than 100 micro, small and medium enterprises in the Visayas.

?The shipment of goods is expected to be of greater value this quarter because we are approaching the holiday season,? he said.

?As of now container vans of rice, cargoes from Manila must be booked one month ahead of shipment schedule, unlike before when Sulpicio was operating, and you could ship cargoes anytime.?

Like Go, Calooy urged the Marina to consider the economy of the Visayas and Mindanao before coming up with a decision.

He pointed out that small companies will be more affected by the BMI decision because their cargoes were not considered a priority compared to those of big multi-national firms.

Calooy said Sulpicio cargo vessels should be allowed to sail.

?Passengers have alternatives to travel because air fare is also cheap while cargoes do not have a cheaper alternative,? he said. /Reporter Cris Evert B. Lato and Inquirer

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