Manila, May 27, 2003 By Rainier Allan Ronda, (Star) - Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza convened the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) yesterday, which he tasked to investigate Sunday’s ferry-boat collision in Manila Bay that killed at least 25 people.

Mendoza said he gave the BMI, chaired by Commodore Damian Carlos, one week to investigate the tragedy and submit a report to him 15 days from yesterday.

BMI investigators, according to Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) commander Vice Adm. Reuben Lista, are looking into the possibility that the two ships may have disregarded a basic maritime rule: Give way to the other ship.

Lista said that the possibility of the two ships violating the basic rule of "opening up a little more to give each other more room to maneuver" will be among the issues the seven-man BMI will discuss.

The panel is composed of Carlos, Capt. Jovito Tamayo of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), lawyer Rudy Villanueva, Capt. Rene Gonzales of the Philippine Ports Authority, Master Mariner Capt. Gregorio Sialsa, PCG Lt. Comm. Robert Patrimonio and chief engineer Ramon Gabelo.

Mendoza said that "following President Arroyo’s directive, the BMI has been convened and given one week to finish its investigation into the incident. We should (get to) the bottom of this and determine who should be made liable (for) this sea tragedy."

He added that the BMI will determine the "probable and proximate cause of the tragedy and investigate if there were violations of maritime rules and regulations."

The BMI will also recommend the implementation of measures to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future, he said.

Mendoza instructed the BMI to determine where there was negligence on the part of the crew of the two ships, the M/V San Nicolas and the SuperFerry 12.

"This investigation will spare no one," he told reporters. "The instructions of the President were very specific. We are going to finish this investigation in 15 days and file civil, criminal and administrative charges (against those found liable)."

Lista said they do not expect the death toll of 25 to go any higher, though it has been established that the San Nicolas did not list all its passengers on its manifest, which shows that only 168 passengers and 27 crew were on board.

There are 203 survivors so far, and the PCG cannot tell yet if anyone is missing.

PCG spokesman Lt. Armand Balilo said that maritime rules indicate that everybody on board has to be listed down in a ship’s manifest.

"What we are doing now is just double-checking if there are more passengers we have not yet found in the area," he said.

Mendoza has also ordered the Coast Guard and the Marina to conduct inspections of the seaworthiness of all vessels operated by San Nicolas Shipping Lines and look into the competence of the vessels’ officers and crew.

"I am expressing my deepest sympathies to the families of those who died in the tragedy. It was unfortunate that while we are implementing measures to ensure the safety of our ships, this incident happened," Mendoza said.

DOTC spokesman Thompson Lantion said Mendoza has also ordered the Coast Guard and Marina to evaluate the emergency readiness of all inter-island vessels.

"We have to intensify the mandatory pre-departure and SOLAS (safety of life at sea) equipment inspection to prevent sea mishaps. Many people are expected to travel from the province in time for school opening on June 16," Lantion quoted Mendoza as saying.

He said Mendoza urged all shipping lines, including other small vessels, to take extra precautions while traveling, particularly in bad weather.

Speedy but thorough investigation

Meanwhile, Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. called for "a speedy yet thorough investigation" into the collision.

He also cautioned government officials and agencies "against making any premature statements that would seem to pinpoint responsibility for the mishap ahead of the actual findings" of the BMI.

In a statement, Guingona said that concerned officials and agencies should focus their attention on completing the search and recovery operations for the unknown number of passengers on board the San Nicolas, and on helping the survivors and the families of those who died in the accident.

"It is troubling to note that based on initial accounts, the rescue operations were triggered not by any early warning capability of our maritime agencies, led by the Coast Guard, but through the fortuitous reception of a text message from one of the passengers," he said.

Guingona said the tragedy "clearly points to the urgent need for us to undertake a close review of our regulations covering maritime navigation and safety procedures."

The government should also take "steps to allocate the needed resources to upgrade and modernize our ability to detect maritime accidents and undertake immediate and effective rescue and recovery operations," he said.

Guingona also urged the government to continue to upgrade the skills of Filipino seafarers, "on whose hands rest the safety and well-being of all our sea travelers."

Opposition Sen. Tessie Aquino-Oreta, for her part, blamed the Coast Guard for the death of 25 of the passengers of the San Nicolas.

She said Malacañang should make sure that heads would roll in the Coast Guard for its repeated failure to curb overloading, along with ensuring the implementation of safety measures, that could have prevented this sea tragedy.

Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, on the other hand, urged President Arroyo to certify several bills as urgent — Senate Bill 795, the Maritime Code of the Philippines; SB 2409, the Creation of the National Transportation Safety Board; and SB 794, the Maritime Administration Act.

Biazon said he filed these bills as early as the 11th Congress, but they are still pending at the committee level.

He said this tragedy could have been avoided if the appropriate laws, particularly his three maritime bills, were passed.

Past laws, decrees and instructions "tended to muddle up the situation because it has resulted in the overlapping of functions and responsibilities among the different government agencies involved in maritime safety," Biazon said.

He said the government cannot leave these "unresponsive laws" uncorrected because the Philippines, "being archipelagic, is greatly dependent on maritime transportation for trade and commerce to flourish."

While the PCG used its new 35-meter patrol vessel, the BRP Ilocos Norte, yesterday in the efforts to search and rescue survivors of the collision, several military vessels have also been called in to help.

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said Navy ships, logistics supply vessels, patrol gunboats, a civilian vessel and helicopters are involved in the search.

Assisting the crew of the navy and civilian vessels are Marine divers based in Ternate, Cavite, he said.

Navy spokesman Geronimo Malabanan said the Navy has already dispatched LSV 550, BRP Cagayan de Oro and Patrol Boat 372. Another boat, DF 342, is on its way to the collision site.

Reyes said the search and rescue operations could take at least three more days to finish – there could be more passengers that are still missing since the San Nicolas was overloaded with people not listed in the ship’s manifest.

The last known collision at the mouth of Manila Bay was on Dec. 2, 1998, when the M/V Cebu City struck the M/V Kota Suria, resulting in the death of 73 people. Forty-one were declared missing then.

Reyes also said the National Disaster Coordinating Council is set to release P10,000 as financial assistance to each victim of the accident. — With reports from Jose Aravilla, Sammy Santos, Bong Fabe, Mike Frialde

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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