Philippine cargo company in ferry disaster linked to several maritime tragedies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 11:30am

A company whose cargo ship collided with a ferry in the Philippines, leaving 200 passengers dead or missing, confirmed yesterday its vessels were involved in four other tragedies that claimed over 5,000 lives between them.

The first of those accidents was in 1987 when the firm's Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 dead in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Late on Friday night, the St Thomas Aquinas ferry was carrying 831 passengers and crew when the collision with a cargo ship occurred in a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines' second-biggest city, authorities said.

Coastguard and military vessels, as well as local fishermen in small boats, frantically worked through the night and yesterday morning to haul 629 people out of the water alive.

When bad weather whipped up the ocean mid-afternoon yesterday, authorities suspended the search with 171 people still unaccounted for. "It rained hard ... with strong winds and rough seas," said Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic.

He said powerful currents earlier prevented divers from assessing the sunken ferry to determine how many people had died and were trapped inside. But Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice-commandant of the coastguard, said the death toll would almost certainly rise from the 31 bodies that had already been retrieved.

"Because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside," he said, adding the ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision.

Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels violated rules on which lanes to use when travelling in and out of the port.

The cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. It is owned by Philippine Span Asia Carrier, whose ships have been involved in four other tragedies.

Chief executive and president Jordan Go confirmed his family's company owned the Dona Paz as well as the other ships.