MANILA, Philippines—Inadequate data gathering systems that allowed the weather office to issue storm warnings only after every six hours and “horrendous errors” by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) doomed the MV Princess of the Stars, a House inquiry was told Monday.
At the opening of the investigation of the June 21 sinking of the ferry owned by Sulpicio Lines, Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros demanded the preventive suspension of three PCG officials for allegedly violating PCG policies.
They were PCG chief Vice Adm. Wilfredo Tamayo, National Capital Region chief Luis Tuason Jr. and Manila Station chief Erwin Balagas. Tuason and Balagas had earlier been relieved.
“Sulpicio Lines carried its passengers to their death, but the PCG also made horrendous errors and violations of its policies,” Hontiveros said. “The sinking of MV Princess of the Stars was a horrible end to a series of ghastly mistakes.”
The 23,800-ton ferry carrying more than 860 passengers and crewmen capsized during a raging typhoon off Sibuyan Island. Only 56 people survived the disaster. At least 173 bodies have been recovered, but the rest are unaccounted for, including hundreds trapped inside the vessel.
Prisco Nilo, director of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), told the hearing that his office could only issue severe weather bulletins every six hours, saying its data gathering and analysis systems had yet to be fully automated.
House Senior Deputy Minority Leader Roilo Golez raised the need for more frequent warnings especially because of the erratic path of Typhoon “Frank” (international codename: Fengshen).
Golez said the vessel’s captain should have known something was amiss when the ship encountered very rough seas.
Nilo, under Golez’s questioning, said that PAGASA released its severe Weather Bulletin No. 8 at 4:45 p.m. on June 20. The warning raised over Romblon at that time was only Signal No. 2.
The ship would not have been allowed to leave port bound for Cebu at 8 p.m. on June 20 if PAGASA had released one bulletin at that time showing the change in the typhoon’s direction.
Bulletin a big difference
“An 8 p.m. bulletin would have made a big difference if it indicated Signal No. 3 along the Marinduque-Romblon area along the route of the ship. Then the ship would not have departed,” Golez told the Philippine Daily Inquirer later.
Golez also took the ship captain to task for not taking shelter when it encountered very rough seas. “The captain should have known something was wrong with the weather,” he said.
“Radar images showed that (the vessel) was very close to the eye of the storm at 11 a.m. (on Saturday when it sank),” he said.
“This could have been addressed with more frequent bulletins,” said Golez, a graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Nilo said PAGASA’s partially automated system couldn’t gather and analyze local and international data quick enough to come up with typhoon bulletins every three hours.
“Japan is fully automated. They can come up with bulletins every three hours. We are not yet fully automated. We can’t issue bulletins every three hours,” Nilo told the lawmakers.
Congressmen also criticized PAGASA for its failure to improve its equipment.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, chair of the House committee on appropriations, said Congress allocated P149 million in 2005 for the purchase of the Doppler radars that would enable PAGASA to track an approaching storm.
He added that in 2007, Congress allocated P200 million for the same purpose.
But Nilo blamed the Department of Budget and Management for its failure to secure the radars, saying the DBM handles procurement.
Transportation Undersecretary Elena Baustista said that a modernization program of the PCG’s internal communications system was under way.
She said the P300-million program funded by a Japanese agency was set to be completed by the end of the year.
Coast Guard violations
Hontiveros listed the PCG’s alleged violations of maritime safety procedures. She said that the PAGASA bulletins should have immediately prompted the Coast Guard to plot the “danger sector, an area where a typhoon may pass during the next 48 hours.”
“The MV Princess of the Stars was bound toward the danger sector yet the PCG allowed it to sail,” Hontiveros pointed out. “All ships are prohibited from sailing into the danger sector, except to take shelter.”
Under the PCG’s Memorandum Circular No. 0407, the agency should have informed the Philippine Port Authority to deny final clearance for ships that would pass through the danger sector, she said, adding that the PPA eventually issued no such notice.
“The PCG claims that it informed the captain of the vessel that Signal No. 3 is hoisted in the ship’s route, but dead men tell no tales,” she said.
Assuming the absence of a weather bulletin, the lawmaker said the Coast Guard was also bound by Memorandum Circular No. 03 to use the Beaufort Wind Scale, which measures wind velocity and its effect at sea, to keep ships from sailing.
Hontiveros said the Operation Plan Sea Marshall, which was issued on March 9, 2004, also required the PCG district commander and station commander “to closely coordinate with sea marshals deployed with the ships on heavy weather condition and steer the ship away from the danger sector.”
“This, too, was conveniently ignored,” she said. “These errors should be corrected and the public officials involved in this tragedy should be held accountable.”
Sulpicio Lines slammed
Parañaque Rep. Eduardo Zialcita castigated Sulpicio Lines officials for apparently pinning the blame on the weather bureau for the disaster.
“Are you trying to tell us that you’re completely at the mercy of PAGASA?” he said. “Are you telling us that that ship did not have the equipment, like a simple radar or satellite?”
Sulpicio vice president Edgar Go replied: “The vessel had the equipment to get some information on the weather (but) we also need to get information from PAGASA for comparison.”
Phone line to PCG
Tamayo also pointed out during the hearing that PAGASA only had one telephone line designated for the Coast Guard and that there was a queue on its users—a point Nilo conceded. This was blamed for the gap in the issuance of PAGASA weather bulletins.
According to Nilo, PAGASA has 10 telephone lines that are normally jammed during emergencies.
Tamayo said the PCG usually had to initiate calls to PAGASA before it could get its bulletins. The same was purportedly true when the PCG requested for Weather Bulletin No. 8. “We got it upon our initiative,” he said.
Muntinlupa Rep. Rufino Biazon cited a PCG document purportedly showing the agency receiving the bulletin more than one hour after it had been issued.
“What caused the delay? Was it directly furnished by PAGASA?” he asked PCG officials.
The PCG also admitted another inadequacy when the subsequent PAGASA bulletin was issued on June 21.
Weather Bulletin No. 9 announced Typhoon Frank changing course, but Luis Tuason, PCG’s erstwhile chief for Metro Manila, admitted that his agency could not relay the information to the Princess of the Stars, which was already sailing.
“We have no capability to contact them on high frequency radio,” he said.
By virtue of the eighth bulletin alone, Biazon asked if Tuason, assuming he was the ship captain, would have taken shelter instead of proceeding on course. Tuason replied: “Yes.”(PDI)