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August 25, 2013

Tragedy at Sea

Our problems are man-made; therefore, they may be solved by man. – John F. Kennedy

This past week, the nation has watched in horror as the calamitous consequences from the collision of the M/V St. Thomas Aquinas and the Sulpicio Express Siete at Lawis Ledge in Talisay City, Cebu unfurled. The collision, which occurred amidst fair weather on Friday evening last week, resulted in the sinking of the M/V St. Thomas Aquinas a mere ten minutes from impact.

Photo credit: Reuters/Erik de Castro via

Photo credit: Reuters/Erik de Castro via

As of this writing, at least 80 people have been confirmed dead with 40 still missing. An oil spill from the sunken boat has spread thousands of hectares across the coast of Lapu-Lapu City and the Municipality of Cordova yielding scores of dead fish, oil-slicked mangroves, and damage to Cebu’s marine ecosystem―the extent of which has yet to be determined. Cebu is under a state of calamity.

As efforts toward the retrieval of bodies and containment of the oil spill continue, questions have been raised as to who is ultimately liable for this unspeakable tragedy.

Natural calamities that result in the loss of human life and in the destruction of our natural resources usually leave the public with no one to blame and just a general sense of responsibility to take better care of the environment. In this instance, however, the context under which the collision occurred makes it obvious that this tragedy is man-made and that the culprits must be brought to justice.

The sea was calm and the weather was fair. The ships were less than an hour away from the Cebu harbor. The M/V St. Thomas Aquinas was inbound from Butuan City, while the Sulpicio Express Siete was outbound to Davao. Presumably, the two ships were armed with proper navigational and communication devices and were manned by experienced captains and crew. There was every reason for this tragedy not to have occurred. But it did. And because it did, a child will have to grow up without his father, a mother will never see her daughter take her first steps, a husband will never again hold his wife, and a young man’s dreams of greener pastures are dashed forever – lost in the abyss of rusting metal a hundred meters under the sea.

The Special Board of Marine Inquiry (SBMI) has begun its official investigation on the collision. From the initial testimonies given by both captains of the colliding ships, it appears that neither one is taking responsibility. Instead, they lay the blame on each other.

On one hand, Capt. Reynan Bermejo of the M/V St. Thomas Aquinas claims that his ship was hit first by the Sulpicio Express Siete, which was on the inbound lane as the Aquinas approached the port. According to Capt. Bermejo, previous attempts to communicate with Sulpicio were for naught. When he saw that the collision was “very imminent”, he steered to the right to avoid the shallow waters on the left.

Capt. Rolito Gilo of the Sulpicio Express Siete, on the other hand, claims that while he tried to contact the Aquinas as it was approaching, he got no response. Apparently, the Aquinas simply responded with a red light and maintained its course. Things turned awry when the Aquinas quickly shifted its course, leaving no time for Capt. Gilo to execute an avoidance course for Sulpicio that would have prevented the collision.

Photo credit: Lake Wylie Pilot

Photo credit: Lake Wylie Pilot

Despite the accounts of these two captains from whom perhaps there will never be hope of any mea culpa, the truth will eventually surface as unbiased testimonies of survivors and witnesses are received and considered by the SBMI. While no amount of compensation could ever ease the pain of losing a loved one or restore damaged marine resources for the next several years at least, it is certainly hoped that the shipping companies involved in this collision would spare no expense in assisting survivors, compensating the families of victims, continuing retrieval efforts, and undertaking marine cleanup and rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, there needs to be a serious review of the Philippine Coast Guard’s policing efforts at sea and the resources necessary (or lack thereof) for them to do so effectively. Strict monitoring of the seaworthiness and safety standards of seafaring vessels is paramount. Considering that cities and towns across the country’s more than 7,100 islands are separated mostly by water, traveling by sea is a major means of transportation. And yet, sea travel does not seem to be as heavily or strictly regulated as land and air travel. While there are traffic enforcers stationed at almost every corner of the roads of major cities, there are no such sea traffic enforcers at major navigational centers like Cebu. While a control tower directs inbound and outbound planes at airports to avoid collision, seafaring vessels are left to their own devices; which, unmanaged, evidently leads to disastrous consequences.

In light of the collision between the Aquinas and Sulpicio, the station commander of the Philippine Coast Guard in Cebu has suggested the installation of a vehicle traffic management system to regulate and monitor vessels traversing Cebu’s waterways.

Sadly, the world’s deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred in Philippine seas when, in 1987, Sulpicio’s M/V Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker resulting in the death of more than 4,300 people. More recently, in 2008, nearly 800 people died when Sulpicio’s M/V Princess of the Stars capsized during a typhoon.

The loss of life to disasters at sea is staggering. The damage to the marine environment is far-reaching. Even more disturbing is what little has been done to avoid such tragedies. As the seafaring public continues to risk life and limb when they board the ships that navigate our waters, it is clear that the need for stricter maritime regulation and sea traffic management is not only imminent but also absolute.


Photo credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro via and Lake Wylie Pilot

 Photos used under the Fair Use Exemption of the IP Code.

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