Archive for July, 2008

The Opening of the 2nd Regular Session of the 14th Congress

Posted in Governance, Inner Thoughts, Politics and Politicians with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

At ten o’clock this Morning, July 28, 2008, the Second Regular Session of the 14th Congress of the Republic of the Philippines was simultaneously opened in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Much of the public discussion regarding today’s even is focused on the President’s State of the Nation Address, or SONA. A choral competition of criticisms and praises has preceded the SONA, which I think is like putting the cart before the horse. I’d rather comment after I hear what the President has to say.

But today’s main event is actually the opening of the Second Regular Session of Congress. The President’s SONA is a consequence of the opening, and she is a guest at the House of the People. The significance of the opening of the session is that the Filipino People, through their elected representatives, are going to exercise their sovereignty and determine the how they are going to be governed through the laws and other measures that will be produced by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

For me as a legislator, the opening of session is the marching order for me to fulfill the duty vested in me by the constituency who voted for me and the Constitution which governs my actions as a public official.

Soon after our session as convened this morning, the Speaker of the House, Prospero Nograles, delivered his opening address to the members of the House. It was his first address during an Opening of Regular Session since he assumed office some time February of this year, therefore I was eagerly anticipating what he was going to say.

I am one who puts premium to word of honor, and give value to what I and other people say. As public officials, the words that come out of our mouths should be held against us, under the principle of accountability. No rhetorics or double talk, just plain truth and commitment.

I appreciated Speaker Nograles’ address. He was quite clear with regard to the direction that the House should undertake within a prescribed time frame. He imposed on the House specific, enumerated measures that he would like congressmen to work on and pass by the end of 2008.

There is nothing more desirable in a leader than getting clear and concise directions. At least everyone is tuned to the same objectives and the progress is measurable because of the time frame given.

If there’s one thing that I can say about Speaker Nograles during his first few months in office, he is a man who is decisive and takes accountability for his words. One of the examples of this trait was his handling of one of the controversial bills before the House of Representatives. During an executive session tackling the matter (the proceedings of which I can’t disclose because of the rules on executive sessions), he gave everyone a chance to state their cases for or against, but when a consensus could not be arrived at by the body, he made the decision and assumed responsibility for that decision.

He did not struggle with double talk, evasive rhetorics and hide behind the curtain of Congress being a deliberative and collective body. When push came to shove, he showed he had the guts to exercise his leadership role.

So as he was enumerating the targets of the House of Representatives, it allayed any doubt as to where the Second Regular Session will take us. At least the course is charted and the timelines drawn.

But what gave me a fresh hope for the House is the Speaker’s statement that the House of Representatives will assert its role of oversight. In the recent past, Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, became a lame duck in the attack against its independence and duty to oversee the workings of the Executive Department. When Executive Order 464 undermined Congress’ role of oversight, the House of Representatives meekly succumbed to the challenge, not raising as much as a whimper to counter that issuance which was abused by Executive Department officials in order to evade and avoid speaking in congressional inquiries.

With the Speaker’s assertion of this congressional duty and right, I was given a reason to be optimistic that there may be a chance for genuine reform in the House and in government.

After the Speaker’s speech and the opening session ceremonies, we adjourned in order to prepare for the afternoon’s Special Joint Session of Congress to hear the President’s SONA. For sure, the media will highlight the impromptu fashion show, owing to the fact that many who attend the SONA dress up for the occasion. Then it will be followed by the courtside commentaries on the President’s speech.

I hope that in the wake of all the glamour and glitter, the pomp and circumstance, and all the brouhaha of this event, the Filipino People will receive the appropriate attention they deserve, and that us public officials, we in government will be able to deliver the goods to an already suffering constituency.


ABDUCTED!!! 3 Year old boy needs your help and prayers!

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Philippines and the Filipinos with tags , , , , , , on July 23, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

As I was playing with my 8 and 5 year old sons this evening, a news item in TV Patrol caught my attention because of 3 things:

First, the news item was about a kidnapping of a three year old boy. Second, the abduction happened inside a mall. And third, it happened within my district and the victim is a constituent of mine.

As a father of four boys aged 17, 8, 5 and 2, I could immediately feel the trauma of the parents, a feeling that I never would like to experience.

Later in the evening, as I was checking messages and the posts in my multiply account, I came across a post about the abduction and again, the thought of a three year old boy in the company of strangers just wrenched my heart.

I would like to post the message of the boy’s aunt, which might enable someone to help track him down.

“My pamangkin, Kuya Ken’s son Matthew, where we took the other half of the business namesake was abducted last night at Festival Mall in Alabang.

Name: Matthew” Chu-chu” David Samudio
Age: 3 Years Old, Can barely speak straight.
Address: 16 guyabano st umali rd. summitville subdivision putatan muntinlupa city 1770

He was last seen at Tom’s World Arcade in Festival Mall Alabang, around 8pm yesterday July 22, 2008 wearing Green Checkered Polo, Maong pants and Green Mr. Bean Slippers.

When we reviewed the surveillance camera in said mall, there was this chubby impoverished looking girl around 12-13 years old wearing a dirtied pink top with floral design and a reddish jogging pants who summoned my nephew and then whispered something to him, then my pamangkin who is very “bibo” readily took her hand as they went out of the said premises.

Guys, I need your help with this, if you know people in the media, police or government agency who might be able to HELP us locate my nephew, I’m begging you, please, please help us. Or at the very least, please pass this message to as many people as possible, who knows where the abductors might have taken him… Matthew is a very sickly kid, he rarely eats unless his yaya feeds him and he was about to have an operation for fluid in his right testis.

If there are any news or lead that can locate my nephew, please help us… Sobrang kawawa ang pamangkin ko, who knows how they are treating him…I dont want this thing happening to any kid so please help my nephew. PLEASE. You can contact my brother at 0923-638-4632.

Thank you so much and God Bless you!”,

Editorial-Manila Times, July 15, 2008

Posted in Governance with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Lobbyists in congressmen’s clothing ONE of the most puzzling questions—but puzzling only because there are “millions of answers”—is why the many bills that have been filed to reform the ancient Maritime Code of the Philippines are not being acted on. As a result, nothing could be done to streamline the maritime industry of our country. And there would be no end to such scandals as Sulpicio Lines’ happy escape from liability and accountability, despite its record of disasters and deaths.

The passage of these laws, or their consolidation into a new Maritime Code, might be one key to the end of sea disasters like those that Sulpicio Lines has become notorious for.

A hint of why a better Maritime Code can’t be passed was seen in the House of Representatives’ hearings on the sinking of the flagship of Sulpicio Lines Inc., the MV Princess of the Stars. Despite public opinion and a number of editorials, columns and broadcast commentaries asking for a thorough probe into the circumstances of the sinking, the House investigation did not at first (and maybe until now) seem to be going anywhere. It was obvious that there were enough congressmen whose moves worked against their colleagues whose aims were to dig up the truth and, if supported by correct findings, declare Sulpicio liable.

In fact, one of the questions bothering those who wish to reform the maritime industry and create a new Maritime Code is why the House opened its hearing as if to steal the thunder from the investigation of the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI). The members of the BMI have been doing quite an effective job. Sulpicio succeeded in getting the most incisive members of the board to resign. We hope that does not make the BMI a less rigorous investigative body.

Muntinlupa’s Congressman Ruffy Biazon probably wrote the most comprehensive maritime industry reform bill pending—or gathering dust—in the House. He has reminded his colleagues that since 1999 there has been in existence a complete set of findings and recommendations to effectively prevent sea disasters. The findings were arrived at from testimonies at the House hearings on the disaster of another Sulpicio ship, the MV Princess of the Orient.

Against Congressmen Biazon, Roilo Golez, Congresswoman Riza Hontiveros Baraquel and a handful of others, some congressman moved in a way that seemed designed to deflect questions about Sulpicio’s culpability.

Similar behavior was seen in the House when it was discussing what has been passed, thank God, and is now called Republic Act 9502 or the “Universally Accessible Cheaper and Quality Medicine Act of 2008. Congressmen acting as lobbyists for the foreign pharmaceutical industry did everything to frustrate passage of the House version of the bill which the Senate had already passed almost half a year earlier.

At one point the foreign pharma people even made the mistake of passing on a note of instructions to Congressman Teodoro Locsin Jr., who promptly exposed the vile deed. That incident confirmed suspicions that some congressmen where in fact doing errands for business and other vested-interest groups.

These lobbyists in congressmen’s clothing are a despicably malevolent breed. They serve their masters to the point of destroying honest and patriotic men and women who are campaigning effectively for reforms to serve the common good, who expose acts and systems harmful to the Filipino people, the Philippine Republic and the economy.

Using some columnists and commentators who do their bidding, these lobbyist-congressmen wage media and innuendo campaigns to make upright congressmen, congresswomen and media people look bad, portraying them as takers of bribes. They invent the existence of a lobby fund in the service of invented vested-interest groups. This way they succeed in maligning the reformers and making other congressmen reluctant to support reforms, lest they too be stained.

These congressmen-lobbyists are traitors. They must be stopped and punished.

MV Princess of the Stars Tragedy : What Should Be Done to Prevent History Repeating Itself? (Part 4 of 4)

Posted in Governance, Inner Thoughts with tags , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

“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):

  1. 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”.

  2. 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.

  3. The BMI recommended that all alteration plans of existing ships in the domestic trade must be reviewed by an internationally recognized Classification Society.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. The BMI stressed the “need to repair the weighing bridge at North Harbor”.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. The BMI emphasized the “need to institutionalize a Safety and Quality Management System in the Shipping Industry and the concerned Government Offices.

  10. The BMI recommended that the bill institutionalizing the Philippine Coast Guard with the Department of Transportation and Communications be fast tracked.

  11. The BMI recommended the acquisition of state-of-the-art Search and Rescue Vessels.

  12. The BMI recommended the update of Communications requirements on all ships plying the domestic trade.

  13. 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:






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.

MV Princess of the Stars Tragedy : How Sulpicio Lines Could Have Avoided It (Part 3)

Posted in Governance, Inner Thoughts with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

In Part 1 of my MV Princess of the Stars Tragedy blog, I discussed why I think PAGASA is not the primary culprit for the sinking of the ferry. In Part 2, I expounded on what is the Coast Guard’s role in ship movement during severe weather. In this third entry, I would like to venture into what Sulpicio Lines, the owner of the ship, could have done to ensure the safety of the ferry, its passengers and cargo.

It is very simple. Sulpicio Lines could have ordered the Master of the Ship, Capt. Florencio Marimon, to either not sail at all or head to shelter when the weather turned for the worse. As an employee of Sulpicio Lines, the captain’s authority as master of the ship could be overridden by the owners. Sulpicio Lines Senior Vice President Edgar Go affirmed during the hearing in the House of Representatives that they had the capability and authority to call the ship and order the captain to seek safer waters while it was underway. That capability is absent in the Philippine Coast Guard and the prevailing rules, regulations, guidelines and even the law likewise do not provide authority for them to stop the ship under those conditions (as I earlier discussed in Part 2 of this series).

Under the law, Sulpicio Lines has the obligation to ensure the safety of their passengers and cargo. The Civil Code, Republic Act No. 386, in its Book IV, Section 4, Article 1733 says:

Common carriers, from the nature of their business and for reasons of public policy, are bound to observe extraordinary diligence in the vigilance over the goods and for the safety of the passengers transported by them, according to all the circumstances of each case.”

In my readings, I came across some definitions of diligence. I’m not a lawyer, so I basically rely on my research and readings. With regard to diligence, it is defined legally as:

“Vigilant activity; attentiveness; or care, of which there are infinite shades, from the slightest momentary thought to the most vigilant anxiety. Attentive and persistent in doing a thing; steadily applied; active; sedulous; laborious; unremitting; untiring. The attention and care required of a person in a given situation; the opposite of negligence.”

With regard to the varying degrees of diligence :

“There may be a high degree of diligence, a common degree of diligence, and a slight degree of diligence, with their corresponding degrees of negligence. Common or ordinary diligence is that degree of diligence which persons generally exercise in respect to their own concerns; high or great diligence is, of course, extraordinary diligence, or that which very prudent persons take of their own concerns; and low or slight diligence is that which persons of less than common prudence, or indeed of any prudence at all, take of their own concerns.”

It means that under the law, Sulpicio Lines should have ensured the safety of the passengers of their ship as if it were the lives of the owners or management themselves which were at risk.

The Civil Code is more specific in Article 1755:

A common carrier is bound to carry the passengers safely as far as human care and foresight can provide, using the utmost diligence of very cautious persons, with a due regard for all the circumstances.”

And to add more emphasis to the obligations of the shipping line, the Civil Code says in Article 1756:

“In case of death of or injuries to passengers, common carriers are presumed to have been at fault or to have acted negligently, unless they prove that they observed extraordinary diligence as prescribed in Articles 1733 and 1755.”

The Revised Guidelines on the Movements of Vessels During Heavy Weather, or Coast Guard Memorandum Circular 04-07, provides for the following responsibilities of the Ship Owner/Operators:

  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.

It cannot be denied that there was sufficient information available to the public, as well as Sulpicio Lines, that a storm was in the Philippine Area of Responsibility. Early weather bulletins already gave a forecast of where the typhoon will pass, which was from the east of the Philippines in a northwesterly course. Even if the typhoon did not change course, the path of the ship would still be affected by adverse weather. In fact, at the time the ship left the port of Manila, signal number one was already hoisted in its port of origin and signal number 2 over their port of destination.

Therefore, with the knowledge that there was a storm unleashing its fury somewhere out in the Philippine Islands, the ship captain, as well as the ship owner/operator, are obligated under the law and existing rules and regulations to make sure that MV Princess of the Stars will not venture into areas that would place the ship, the passengers and the cargo in danger.

They should have taken the initiative to get information from PAGASA and other available sources of weather data just to prevent the ship from being exposed to severe weather. They should have communicated constantly with the Master of the Ship and properly advised him of what the weather situation was, and even order him to take shelter in the nearest available location.

The issuances of the weather bulletins were sufficient for the shipowner to make a decision to order the ship to take shelter earlier. Weather Bulletin Number 9 was a crucial bulletin, issued at 11:00 PM of June 20 or about three hours after the ship left Manila. In that Bulletin, it was already observed that the typhoon had changed course compared to the tracking in Bulletin No. 8, and the Weather Signals were already elevated (signal number 3 in the route of the ship).

If it were the children of the owners on board that ship, what do you think would have been the decision?

Extraordinary diligence. It’s not hard to understand.

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

Posted in Governance, Inner Thoughts with tags , , , , , on July 9, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

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.

MV Princess of the Stars Tragedy Inquiry: Barking at the Wrong Tree (Part 1)

Posted in Governance, Inner Thoughts with tags , , , , on July 9, 2008 by Ruffy Biazon

Last Monday, the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight conducted the first hearing, in aid of legislation, into the sinking of Sulpicio Lines’ MV Princess of the Stars, which brought more than 800 souls to their deaths.

As I said in my press statement that day, the inquiry should focus more on the legislation that should be produced in order to prevent or minimize sea tragedies in our archipelagic country.

Actually, there already are pending legislation, some of which I am the principal author, but are lying in the depths of the piles of bills pending in Congress. But I will get to that later. For now, I would like to share my thoughts on the hearing that was held, which to my mind almost veered off course from where we were supposed to be headed.

As expected, first to be on the questioning block was the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Sciences, commonly known as PAGASA (there’s no hyphen between G and A, which would make it the Tagalog word for “HOPE”).

Director Prisco Nilo, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken and obviously low-profile head of the agency, faced off with the congressmen, all eager to get answers to their probing questions.

A couple of questions after he was put on the line, it became apparent that the direction of blame was heading the director’s way. There seemed to be a belief that due to PAGASA’s faulty weather forecast, the ship met its fatal destination under water. The accuracy of their forecasts, as well as the lack of equipment, came to the forefront of the discussions. It did not help that many people have experienced in the past PAGASA’s forecasts of storms yet be toasted in the bask of sunshine. Or the times when clear weather was forecasted but rains dampened everyone’s day.

PAGASA was further slammed when it was revealed that despite the allocation of funds for the purchase of doppler radars last year, the same had yet to be actually bought and put into operation. Dir. Nilo had a difficult time answering the impatient questions of the congressmen with regard to the several failure of biddings for the supply of the equipment, leading to the non-procurement of the radars.

It seemed that PAGASA was turning out to be the culprit of the accident. But is it?

In my opinion, there is no firm basis to say that PAGASA is to blame. I’m not absolving them, but what I’m saying is that there isn’t enough for me to even be led to believe that they’re culpable. For now.

Why so? Well, the first thing to do is to look at the agency’s function. As provided by it’s legal mandate, PAGASA’s functions are:

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, presently existing, is hereby reorganized and shall have the following functions:

  1. Maintain a nationwide network pertaining to observation and forecasting of weather and other climatological conditions affecting national safety, welfare and economy;
  2. Undertake activities relative to observation, collection, assessment and processing of atmospheric and allied data for the benefit of agriculture, commerce and industry;
  3. Engage in studies of geophysical and astronomical phenomena essential to the safety and welfare of the people;
  4. Undertake researches on the structure, development and motion of typhoons and formulate measures for their moderation; and
  5. Maintain effective linkages with scientific organizations here and abroad, and promote exchange of scientific information and cooperation among personnel engaged in atmospheric, geophysical and astronomical studies.

Nowhere is it stated in their functions that they are supposed to prevent land, air or sea vessels from plying their routes in case of a storm. Neither are they expected to manage disasters or coordinate the operations of government agencies during inclement weather such as typhoons.

In general, PAGASA is expected to gather data on the weather, process them and make those available to the agencies that need the information to perform their own functions. Examples would be the Coast Guard, which gives the clearances for ships to sail, the Air Transport Authority, which can ground planes, and the National Disaster Coordinating Council, which is tasked to be the over-all coordinator for disaster management and response.

That’s why I found it ridiculous when some took PAGASA to task for not calling the ship to warn them of the weather. It simply is not their job to do that.

Some might say, “well, the principle of garbage in, garbage out applies in this case”. Yes, that maxim is true. There is no debate about that. If PAGASA gave the wrong information to the agencies, then their decisions and judgment calls will become erroneous.

So the question is, did PAGASA give the wrong information?

In order to answer that, it must first be realized that there really is no way to accurately predict or forecast where a typhoon will pass. Scientists can only make an educated prediction based on scientific observations and some established geophysical principles.

For example, it is already known that typhoons in our part of the world generally move westward from the Pacific ocean where they are born. It is also known that typhoons are drawn towards the poles of the hemisphere where they are, that is, typhoons in the northern hemisphere (where the Philippines is) are drawn towards the North Pole. It is also scientifically known that temperature and pressure also affect the movement of typhoons, and all of these and other information, along with the use of special equipment, give them the ability to forecast a typhoon’s trajectory.

But typhoons are still natural occurrences that are affected by so many variables. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to precisely predict with 100% reliable accuracy, where a typhoon will pass.

Typhoon Hagibis in 2007 is a perfect example of how fickle a typhoon can be. It was forecasted to hit the Bicol region, which prompted evacuations and disaster preparations, but it changed course and avoided the usual route. To top it off, as it was about to leave the Philippine area of responsibility, it suddenly backtracked and reversed its course, going back into Philippine AOR.

Going back to the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy, the relevant question is, “was PAGASA able to provide the right information at the right time?”

First, in spite of PAGASA’s lack of equipment, the agency was able to gather weather data and issue Severe Weather Bulletins. Those weather bulletins were accessible to the government agencies, media outfits and all others who cared about what the weather would be like.

In fact, PAGASA’s Weather Bulletin No. 8 was the basis for the Philippine Coast Guard’s clearance for the MV Princess of the Stars to set sail. Noteworthy, however, was the one hour and twnety minute gap between PAGASA’s issuance of the bulletin, which was at 4:45 PM, and receipt of the bulletin by the PCG’s Action Center at 6:07 PM. The ship was given clearance to sail at 8:00 PM.

At 11:00 PM, PAGASA issued Weather Bulletin No. 9 and it indicated the change in course of the typhoon. They also gave a new trajectory forecast which then placed the route of the ship and its destination on a higher Severe Weather Signal. At the time of the bulletin, the ship was somewhere in the vicinity of Batangas and was still in calmer seas. Given the circumstances, there was a reason and there was still time for the ship to seek shelter. It did not.

A comparison of the PAGASA forecast of the typhoon’s path and the actual track it took would show that the deviation was not gross. The actual path followed a similar general trajectory as the forecast, not an entirely different course. If the typhoon followed the forecasted track, it might still even have affected, though a lesser degree, the route of the ship.

It is unfortunate that during the hearing, much time was spent grilling the PAGASA official. It only resulted in the deviation from asking the agencies (Marina or Coast Guard) and the shipping company, which I believe have more direct responsibility.

Thankfully, we were able to ask questions to the Coast Guard and Sulpicio Lines. We just did not have enough time and had to adjourn for the day. More on those questions in my next blog entry.