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EDITORIAL - Wake-up call

The sinking of the Princess of the Stars served as a wake-up call for maritime authorities, according to the Philippine Coast Guard. Regular ferry passengers as well as those left behind by the nearly 700 fatalities in the disaster, which occurred a year ago this weekend off Sibuyan Island in Romblon, can only hope that the wake-up call has resulted in long-term measures to make maritime transportation safe.

Only last month, an overloaded motorized boat lost its outrigger in fine weather and capsized on its way to Puerto Galera from the Batangas port. Twelve people died. These boats are ubiquitous throughout the archipelago, but their commercial operations are largely unregulated by maritime authorities.

Apart from poor regulation of commercial shipping, the weakness of the justice system emboldens operators of all types of vessels, from motorized bancas to chemical tankers and ferries, to ignore maritime safety rules. Over the past two decades, thousands of people have died in maritime disasters in this country.

The Philippines holds the record for the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster: the collision of the ferry Doña Paz with the oil tanker Vector on Dec. 20, 1987, where more than 4,300 people died. The figure is nearly three times higher than the death toll in the sinking of the Titanic, wherein 1,517 people perished. Sulpicio Lines, owner of the Doña Paz and Princess of the Stars as well as the ill-fated ferries Doña Marilyn and Princess of the Orient, holds the world record for the highest number of fatalities involving its ships, at 5,300.

Yet how many shipping operators have gone to prison or even saw their business collapse due to a maritime disaster? Compensation for disaster survivors and the heirs of fatalities has never been large enough to force any shipping operator to close shop. Sulpicio Lines, whose vessels reportedly account for 40 percent of Philippine inter-island shipping, flourishes through disaster after disaster. If the Princess of the Stars tragedy served as a wake-up call for maritime authorities, they should see to it that the entire maritime industry is awakened along with them.

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