Wednesday, July 09, 2008

MV Princess of the Stars Tragedy : The Coast Guard's Role (Part 2)

In my previous blog, I discussed why I'm of the belief that there isn't enough to pin the blame on PAGASA with regard to the sinking of the MV Princess of the Orient.

A good question was raised by one of those who commented on what I wrote. She asked if the captain of the ship knew that the typhoon changed its course. It's a crucial question in determining who may be at fault.

As revealed in the committee hearing, PAGASA was able to provide information about the storm and they were able to issue bulletins which were disseminated both to key government agencies and the public. It had no obligation under the law to directly contact the ship to give information on the weather bulletins.

PAGASA is mandated to inform key agencies such as the Philippine Coast Guard and the National Disaster Coordinating Council in order for them to make informed and correct decisions.

So what was the Coast Guard's role in all this?

The PCG has 5 primary functions:

1. MARSAD – Maritime Safety Adminsitration

2. MARSAR – Maritime Search and Rescue

3. MAREP – Maritime Environmental Protection

4. MARLEN- Maritime Law Enforcement

5. MAROPS – Maritime Operations

Under one of these functions, particularly MARSAD, the PCG was mandated to give clearances to ocean going vessels for them to sail under particular weather conditions. In order to provide order and serve as rules in the enforcement of MARSAD, the Coast Guard issued a memorandum, PCG MC-04-07, otherwise known as “Revised Guidelines on the Movement of Vessels During Heavy Weather”, dated June 27, 2007.

The general principle of the guidelines is that safety of life at sea shall be the primordial consideration at all times. The guidelines stipulate that the the Coast Guard Commander and the Master of the Ship shall study the movement of typhoons and ensure that the vessel will not be within the area affected by severe weather. The guidelines emphasize that the PCG Station Commander merely assists the Master of the Vessel (the ship captain) in formulating his own decision by providing the necessary information. It is therefore expected that the Ship Owners and Masters will make judgments that will preserve life and property.

Many say that the Coast Guard should not have allowed the ship to sail when signal number 1 was hoisted over Manila, its port of origin. The guidelines, which were formulated in consultation with the Philippine Inter-island Shipping Association, provided that if Severe Weather Signal No. 1 is hoisted over the port of origin, the movement of the vessel is left to the decision and responsibility of the Ship Owner or Master. The Coast Guard merely advises them of the situation.

While it would be easier for the PCG to simply ground everyone during signal number 1, the guidelines were drawn as such because it was the position of the PISA that the decision to set sail should remain with the Ship Owner / Master because of economic considerations.

It is worthy to note that after Typhoon Frank which sunk MV Princess of the Stars, the government issued a new, Interim Guideline which would prevent vessels from sailing when Signal Number 1 is declared. However, the PISA insists that the decision to sail under Signal Number 1 should still remain with the Owner/Master due to possible “economic and social implications”.

Under the Guidelines, the PCG may deny clearance to sail only upon the hoisting of Signal Number 2 and up. In the case of the MV Princess of the Stars, at the time of their departure, 8:00 PM of June 20, signal number 1 was hoisted over Metro Manila, the ships's port of origin, while signal number 2 was hoisted over its destination.

Under the guidelines, the Coast Guard Manila Station could only advise the Ship Master of the weather situation, and the decision to set sail remained with him. At that time, Cebu City Coast Guard had already suspended the departure of vessels from Cebu (the destination of the Princess of the Stars) as early as 7:00 AM of that day.

It is unfortunate that under the Guidelines, Coast Guard station Manila had no choice but to allow the Ship Master to decide whether to sail or not. The guidelines provide that if Signal Number 1 was raised over the origin, route and destination, the Ship Master had the discretion to proceed with the journey. If signal number 2 was raised in the origin, route and destination, only vessels less than 2,000 gross tons were prevented from sailing. The MV Princess of the Stars weighed more than 23,000 gross tons. So even if their port of destination was already under Signal Number 2, they still could sail on their own volition. And sail they did.

Around three hours after the ship set sail from Manila, PAGASA issued Severe Weather Bulletin Number 9 at around 11:00 PM, June 20. In the said bulletin, it was already noted that the typhoon had changed course, and that the storm signals had been upgraded. Metro Manila was then placed under Signal Number 2, the same as the ship's destination, Cebu. But the ship's route had Signal Number 3 hoisted over it (Marinduque and Romblon among others). At that time, the ship just got out of Manila Bay, somewhere in Batangas, where Signal Number 2 was hoisted.

A seasoned mariner would have felt how the seas were at that time. He would have checked what the weather would be like in the route he was passing or the destination he was going. The Coast Guard did not have the capability to communicate with him and neither did they have the authority to stop him. But the ship's owner had the capability to communicate and the authority to stop him.

The Coast Guard reported that CG Station Manila was able to communicate with Sulpicio Lines' radio operator regarding Bulletin Number 9. The radio operator allegedly verified that the MV Princess of the Stars was able to receive the said weather bulletin, as well as Bulletin Number 10 issued at 5:00 AM of June 21.

On the Ship Owners/Operators responsibility, the Guidelines provide that they should:

  1. Ensure that all vessels are properly informed of the weather update, to include the areas where typhoon signals are hoisted.

  2. Discourage any vessel's movement except for sheltering purposes especially when typhoon signals are hoisted or expected to be hoisted within the area of origin, the route and the destination.

  3. Keep track of all weather reports for dissemination purposes as well as monitor all vessel's movements until they reach the port safely.

  4. Inform the Coast Guard immediately of any unusual incident involving maritime safety such as missing craft and/or loss of contact with any of their vessels.

The Coast Guard is tasked to enforce maritime safety, among other functions. But the PCG is, just like other government agencies, saddled with a lack of capabilities. It also lacks authority under existing laws and guidelines. If there is something that can be done to improve maritime safety as a result of this accident, the provision of resources and the passage of new laws or amendment of existing ones are undoubtedly must-dos.

But who is responsible for that? I would have to say that that role belongs to the Legislative Department---the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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