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Ill-starred ship pride of Sulpicio

First Posted 01:50:00 06/24/2008

MANILA, Philippines?The doomed Princess of the Stars was the gem in the Sulpicio Lines galaxy.

The 23,800-ton vessel acquired from Japan at a cost of $5 million was the largest in the shipping company?s fleet. It had no record of any malfunction or mechanical trouble, Sulpicio officials said.

If the vessel sank, it was because of nature?s untamed fury, Sally Buaron, Sulpicio Lines vice president, said in a news conference in Manila Monday.

Buaron stressed that the 23,800-ton ship, which carried 751 passengers?724 paying passengers and 27 contractors, concessionaires and sea marshals?and 111 crew, left Pier 12 at Manila North Harbor ?in very good condition.?

?The Princess of the Stars, the largest ship in Sulpicio?s fleet and in the domestic trade, was very seaworthy,? Buaron said, enumerating the safety certificates the ship obtained from maritime authorities.

?We are wondering why there are reports that the ship sank because of engine trouble,? Buaron said.

According to Sulpicio officials, the ship left the Manila port on Friday, with a go-signal from the Philippine Coast Guard.

Buaron pointed out that the ship?s size allowed it to sail even under Storm Signal No. 1 according to maritime rules.

?The crew of Princess of the Stars kept on communicating with us until 11 a.m. on Saturday,? Buaron said. At that point, ship master Capt. Florencio Marimon informed the Sulpicio management that the vessel had run aground and eventually tilted on its left side.

Buaron said the company tried to contact Marimon and the other crew members through their cell phones, but to no avail.

?We are also at a loss as to what really happened. We are as eager as you are to know about the real story behind the tragedy,? Buaron said.

No mechanical problems

Edgar Go, Sulpicio Lines first vice president, also said the ship had not experienced any mechanical trouble before it sank despite a Coast Guard report that said the company?s port captain, Nestor Ponterre, had telephoned the agency on Saturday, saying that the ferry had slowed down because of engine trouble.

Go explained that the reported hole that sank the vessel was actually the bow thruster?which aids the vessel in maneuvering, docking and undocking. He also said that Marimon, who remained missing, had the overall authority to decide whether to continue the voyage or turn back.

?The strong winds and big waves veered the ship two nautical miles from its original course and swept it to shallow waters,? Go said.

The Sulpicio officials announced that they would pay P200,000 to the family of each casualty and give financial assistance to the survivors and their relatives.

Hoping against hope

?We are hoping against hope that more survivors will be rescued,? Buaron said, adding that of the 724 paying passengers, 81 were minors.

Go said that Sulpicio Lines purchased the ship in Japan five years ago for $5 million.

Distraught relatives of the 845-plus people on board the vessel complained to Sulpicio employees while waiting for news in the central city of Cebu, where the Princess of the Stars was meant to dock.

?You can?t bring our loved ones back. You should be held responsible,? one woman told employees of the company.

A floor of the passenger terminal was converted into a small chapel with a makeshift altar. Nuns and priests comforted those waiting. During an emotional Catholic Mass, one man pounded the wall in grief over his missing son.

Edward Go, one of Sulpicio?s owners, said the company was relying on the Coast Guard for information.

A tragedy nobody wanted

?We fully understand the feelings of the people and we are prepared to help them in any way we can, but, as of now there is really no information available,? he said. ?This is a tragedy that nobody wanted.?

Scores of angry relatives also confronted Sulpicio officials in their port office in Cebu City.

?Sulpicio is only thinking of its millions,? shouted Teresa Hiyas, whose parents?Rogelio Alipin, 63, and his wife Petra, 68?had gone to Manila to attend the funeral of a daughter. With a report from Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas

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