Manila, April 16, 2002 (STAR) By Nestor Etolle - The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) debunked yesterday claims that MV Maria Carmela was deliberately sunk to mislead investigators and conceal evidence against the ship owners.

Meanwhile, salvage divers found the remains of seven people in the wreckage of the vessel that caught fire on April 11 and sank at dusk on Sunday.

It was the first excursion to the Maria Carmela, which was still smoldering three days after the fire, preventing salvage workers from doing their task.

The PCG said search efforts were suspended due to darkness but would resume at dawn today.

"The vessel has been subjected to intense heat for 77 hours, causing its steel structure to melt," PCG commandant Vice Adm. Reuben Lista said, explaining the sinking of the ferry.

On the first day of the fire on Thursday, the superstructure of the ferry had already collapsed, while its steel hull had warped after four days, Lista said. "Seawater seeped in between the warped riveted seams of the ship’s hull and caused the sinking," he said.

The PCG chief issued the clarification after relatives of the victims alleged that the Coast Guard detachment in Lucena City had connived with Montenegro Shipping Lines, owner and operator of the ill-fated ferry, to sink the vessel to hide evidence vital to the ongoing investigation.

As this developed, Transportation Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez gave assurances yesterday that the sinking of MV Maria Carmela last Sunday would not affect the investigation on the cause of the fire that engulfed the vessel.

"MV Maria Carmela was already near the port when it sank. The place is shallow so our divers could easily reach the vessel," he said in a radio interview.

Alvarez had created a special Board of Marine Inquiry to determine how the fire started. He gave the body 30 days to complete the investigation.

According to Lista, grieving relatives of the victims also complained that they were prevented by the Coast Guard from boarding the MV Maria Carmela to look for their kin. They alleged that the Coast Guard, in collusion with the ship owners, were trying to hide some information from them.

Lista added that the PCG detachment commander in Lucena City, a certain Commander Gunio, had received death threats from relatives of the victims for his alleged antagonism toward them.

But Lista explained that people were not allowed to board the smoking ferry for their own safety since the structure was extremely hot and already weakened.

"We did not even allow tugboats owned by Montenegro to tow their ship to avoid suspicion," Lista said.

On Sunday, the ferry was still on fire prompting the PCG to tow the vessel 1.2 nautical miles off the Port of Dalahican in Lucena City. The ship was sailing fast then because its crew had not been able to bring down the anchor at the height of the blaze. But around 12:30 pm that day, the vessel listed to starboard (right side) and went down under 60 feet of water.

Lista refused to comment on the crew’s apparent ignorance of basic safety course, saying it is now one of the subjects of the probe by the special board.

Special Operations Group of the Coast Guard took underwater video footage of the sunken vessel, with instructions not to disturb the scene of the sinking.

Rear Admiral Domingo Estera, chairman of the Coast Guard’s Maritime Incident Crisis Management Committee, had placed the casualties at 28 dead, six missing, 95 injured and 176 rescued.

The MV Maria Carmela caught fire near Pagbilao Chica island in Atimonan, Quezon while sailing from Masbate enroute to Lucena City.

The Coast Guard is looking at four possible angles on the cause of the fire: the fire was started by a cigarette thrown at the pile of copra, a highly volatile coconut fuel; one of the crewmembers cooked his meal near the pile of copra; the copra was placed near the exhaust pipe of the ship’s engine; a running engine of one of the buses carried by the ferry spewed sparks, triggering a blaze.

The Maritime Industry Authority said it would cancel Montenegro’s licenses and revoke its franchise should it be established that the vessel violated maritime safety regulations in its operation.

Meanwhile, in Masbate City, 14 caskets of the 28 passengers who died in the MV Maria Carmela fire arrived at the pier aboard a Navy ship BRP Miguel Malvar and MV Blue Water Sunday.

Senior Superintendent Ricardo Ver, Masbate police director, said the caskets bearing the bodies of Rebecca Baranan, Clarita Banez, Virginia Real, all from Balud town; Rosemarie Bordeos of Place; Rommel Guro of Barangay Nursery here; Lydia Mendiola and Rosena de la Cruz, both from San Fernando; Katrina Lo of Masbate City; Mica Mae Verdida of Cawayan; and Andrew Solano of Catalgan were brought aboard the Navy ship.

MV Blue Water of the Montenegro Shipping Lines brought the coffins of Olimpio Almazor of Palanas town, Ella May Arendain of Uson and Nenita Mendoza of Cawayan.

Relatives of the victims wailed at the pier when they saw the coffins of their loved ones who left this city alive six days ago. — With Sheila Crisostomo, Celso Amo

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved