“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It was the philosopher and writer George Santayana who wrote that in his book, The Life of Reason. There is wisdom in that quote, don't you think?
It was precisely what I had in mind when I commented during the joint hearing of the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight regarding the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy. I said that first, the committees should focus on the legislation that we will produce from the testimonies in the hearing. Second, we must learn from the lessons of the past so that we will be able to come up with relevant legislation that will prevent, or at least make the repeat of the accident least likely.
When I said that we should learn from the past, I was referring to a specific case in the past, where another Sulpicio Lines ship, the Princess of the Orient, was given clearance to sail out of the port of Manila while a storm was in the Philippine area of responsibility, encountered rough seas and winds, and eventually sank off the Batangas Coast.
With both ships owned by the same company, it is eerie that they had similar circumstances during their final voyage. On second thought, was it eerie or unsurprising? Sulpicio Lines has several ship tragedies in its wake, including the worst sea disaster in history.
Well, as I said in the beginning, we should learn from the mistakes of the past.
The Board of Marine Inquiry which investigated the sinking of the Princess of the Orient and found the master of the ship guilty of erroneous maneuvers and the crew responsible for the substandard lashing of the cargo which resulted in its fatal shifting.
The BMI ended the report with numerous recommendations borne out of the inquiry they conducted. It was a productive inquiry, with a determination of culpability and concrete proposals for the maritime industry. And the final paragraph of the report gave a grim reminder and a chilling forecast. The Board said:
"...considering the facts and recommendations presented in this report, all of us would agree that there are still more things to be done to rectify the situation. Some of the recommended program of actions needs to be addressed by Congress. It is on this light that the Board is respectfully requesting Congress to legislate the afore-cited recommendations necessary to reform the present system in maritime safety administration. Tragedies such as the M/V Princess of the Orient incident and others like it in the past are likely to recur unless concrete measures are undertaken to reform the present system."
What are those recommendations which the BMI believed would reform the system and prevent the recurrence of such tragedies? I would like to share these recommendations, although in the interest of space, I'll just post the headings of the paragraphs per recommendation (in italics):
The BMI recommended the creation of a National Transportation Safety Commission (Maritime Division) which it saw as an "independent government agency to promote transportation safety (maritime safety in case of shipping) by conducting independent accident investigations and by formulating safety improvement recommendations".
The BMI recommended the formulation of a policy requiring the ship owner to submit new stability book (hydrostatic table) for ships that have undergone reconfigured construction prior to registration.
The BMI recommended that all alteration plans of existing ships in the domestic trade must be reviewed by an internationally recognized Classification Society.
The BMI recommended that any proposed alteration of the original ship's design shall have a written consent and approval of the original builder of the ship.
The BMI recommended that shipowners shall be required to submit the stowage plan and stability calculation of their ships to the Philippine Coast Guard prior to the issuance of departure clearance.
The BMI stressed the "need to repair the weighing bridge at North Harbor".
The BMI recommended that Shipowners shall be required to develop an "in-house" training for their seafarers particularly focusing on emergency shipboard evolutions, cargo handling procedures, stability calculations, ship handling on emergency situations, among many others.
The BMI recommended that the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority should ensure that their personnel are technically competent and qualified to undertake marine survey/inspection of ships and to issue corresponding safety certificates.
The BMI emphasized the "need to institutionalize a Safety and Quality Management System in the Shipping Industry and the concerned Government Offices.
The BMI recommended that the bill institutionalizing the Philippine Coast Guard with the Department of Transportation and Communications be fast tracked.
The BMI recommended the acquisition of state-of-the-art Search and Rescue Vessels.
The BMI recommended the update of Communications requirements on all ships plying the domestic trade.
The BMI recommended the creation of a provisional Maritime Commission to look into the state of maritime safety in the country with the end in view of aiding maritime development in the Philippines.
Out of these thirteen recommendations, I know that at least five were not pursued by government.
One of these recommendations has been overdue for a long time now, with or without the recommendation of the BMI. The creation of a National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government body specifically tasked to investigate accidents in air, sea, and land (rail and public transport) which would determine the causes of these accidents, identify those responsible and propose measures that would prevent recurrence of such mishaps.
Anyone who has watched Air Crash Investigators in National Geographic Channel knows the importance of having such an agency. In that program, it shows how the US NTSB has made flying more safer due to the work they have done.
For example, there was a crash of a 747 back in the 90's which, after a thorough investigation by the NTSB, was determined to have been caused by the overloading of the electrical wiring of the entertainment system on board the aircraft. At that time, on board entertainment was in its infancy, with that particular aircraft being one of the first to use individual video screens for passengers. It turns out that when all the passengers simultaneously use their on board entertainment system, the electrical wiring gets overloaded and heats up. Eventually, it created a spark and ignited the jetfuel fumes circulating in the aircraft's wing.
The Princess of the Orient BMI recognized the need for such an agency, with particular stress on the body being independent. Their recommendation will result in the abolition of the BMI yet they proposed it anyway because they acknowledge that there could be an instance in the future when the Philippine Coast Guard itself will be in a cloud of doubt and investigated for its role in a maritime accident. Being a part of the BMI, it would be an awkward, if not incorrect situation where the investigator is tasked to investigate itself.
Having said that, the question is “Who needs to act on the proposal?”
Well, as the BMI report correctly pointed out, it is Congress' role to do it. A law needs to be passed in order to put life into that recommendation. But sad to say, Congress has failed to do it. It has been nine years from the time the recommendation was made but up to this day, we are still operating under the conditions that prevailed during the time of the Princess of the Orient's sinking. What was it that Santayana said about those who don't remember the past.....?
I first filed the bill creating the NTSB back in 2004 during my second term. Alas, the 13th Congress came and went but the bill slept in the files of Congress, not earning the interest of the committee. I re-filed it this Congress last July 2007 but up to today, it has not been taken up in a hearing. Ironically, the committee to which this bill was referred to is the same Committee doing the inquiry into the tragedy of the MV Princess of the Stars. Sad to say, it even seems that no one has noticed that there are bills pertaining to the maritime industry, several of which were borne from the BMI's recommendations, that are pending in that committee.
That's why on the day of the hearing, I issued a press statement highlighting the need to focus on the legislation pending in Congress in order to drum up public consciousness on the role that Congress is playing in this drama. We are not there to render judgment but to provide policy through legislation.
As a consequence of the recommendations of the BMI in 1999 and in pursuit of reforms in the maritime industry and , I filed the following bills in 2007:
House Bill No. 70 - AN ACT ESTABLISHING THE PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD AS A SEPARATE AND DISTINCT SERVICE ATTACHED TO THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND COMMUNICATIONS, FURTHER AMENDING REPUBLIC ACT NO. 5173, AS AMENDED AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES
House Bill No. 73 - AN ACT ESTABLISHING THE MARITIME AND OCEAN AFFAIRS CENTER AS AN ATTACHED AGENCY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, PROVIDING FOR ITS FUNCTIONS AND RESPONSIBILITIES, APPROPRIATING FUNDS THEREFOR, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES
House Bill No. 77 - AN ACT CREATING A NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD, APPROPRIATING FUNDS THEREFOR AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES
House Bill No. 78 - AN ACT INCREASING THE PENALTY IMPOSED AGAINST POLLUTERS OF NAVIGABLE WATERS BY AMENDING SECTION 7 OF PRESIDENTIAL DECREE NO. 979 PROVIDING FOR THE REVISION OF PRESIDENTIAL DECREE NO. 600 GOVERNING MARINE POLLUTION
House Bill No. 87 - AN ACT CONSOLIDATING ADMIRALTY AND MARITIME LAWS TO MODERNIZE THE MARITIME INDUSTRY, PROMOTE AND REGULATE MERCHANT MARINE ACTIVITIES, RATIONALIZE THE ORGANIZATION AND FUNCTIONS OF GOVERNMENT AGENCIES RELATED TO ADMIRALTY AND MARITIME MATTERS, AND INSURE THE PROTECTION OF THE MARINE WEALTH IN THE PHILIPPINE TERRITORY
These bills provide the starting point for Congress to work for the development and enhancement of maritime safety in the Philippines. It is ironic that in spite of being an archipelagic country with more than 7,000 islands and heavy dependence on sea-going vessels for transport of people, services, goods and cargo, we seem to be taking these matters lightly.
Of course it cannot be avoided that during the hearings, the questions asked would touch on who is liable, but in the end, we should come up with ways to provide solutions. But we need not look too far for the solutions. All we need is to remember the past, in order not to be condemned to repeat it.