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Sulpicio was not spared Congress’s storm

(Article published in the Jul 30, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

 Last week, just going by my reading of the reportage of the first day of the joint hearings of the House Committees’ on Oversight and on Transportation on the sinking of the Princess of the Stars,  I wrote that the session “ended with Sulpicio Lines not being asked a single question by the attending Congressmen…”

 Now that I have in front of me the TSN of the proceedings, I am prepared to confess “mea culpa.”  True, the PAGASA, the Phil Coast Guard, and the MARINA bore the greater brunt of the questioning.  But, nevertheless, some questions were in fact asked of Sulpicio.

 In fact, though it was getting late, it was Cong. Puentevella, of the lone district of Bacolod City, chair of the hearing, who suggested that the questioning proceed to focus on Sulpicio.  This was readily acceded to by Hon. Jocelyn Sy-Limkaichong, of the 1st District, Negros Oriental, who requested that the Committees be provided a copy of  the radio log book of the company in order to get an idea of the exchange of communication from ship to shore and vice versa during the critical hours prior to the sinking of the ill-fated vessel.  Copies of the radio log in Manila and Cebu will be submitted, she was assured by Atty. Ma. Victoria Lim-Florido, legal counsel and concurrently, as of June 23 or just two days after the tragedy at Sibuyan Island, Vice President for Corporate Commications and Affairs of Sulpicio Lines.


When Hon. Roilo Golez, 2nd District, Parañaque, pointed out that the good lawyer, not having first hand experience of what actually transpired, may not be in a position give reliable testimony, the questioning turned to Mr. Edgar Go, Sulpicio’s “Vice President for operations or Vice President in total”. Whatever the latter title may have meant, Go committed to answer “to the best of his ability.”

 To Hon. Sy-Limkaichong’s  query of whether it was true, as she recalled hearing the port captain’s testimony on TV, that the vessel had to pump out two ballast tanks to lighten the vessel in order to be able to load more cargo without going beyond the authorized load lines, Go said that the vessel “had enough ballast which we never pumped it (sic) out”.  When pressed, he said “The ballast remained on board.  They are fixed ballast on board.”  This prompted the good congresswoman’s remark, “before they came in they took [the] oath, right, that they were saying the truth and nothing but the truth…’. 

 She then proceeded to ask for Go’s comment on the report that the cargo was not properly lashed.  The reply to her was “The BMI investigation is ongoing and there is no finding on that matter, Your Honor.”

 Hon. Antonio V. Cuenco, 2nd District, Cebu City came to his lady colleague’s assistance, and asked Go to comment on the allegation that the “rope securing the cargoes were very, very brittle.  And during the slight tilting of the ship they all broke loose and [it was this] which resulted in the sinking.”

 Go’s comment was: “”Your Honor, the lashings were inspected by the chief officer and our operation officer as well as our safety officer.  We also have the test certificate to establish the strength of the lashing.”  Cuenco, undoubtedly keeping his cool, asked for the certificate, and wryly pointed out “I feel that this matter can be resolved later on if and when the vessel is refloated.”

 When asked by Chairman Puentevella, “when is the refloating of the ship?”, the answer was “our hand (sic) underwriter has ongoing discussion with the salvor. Since we have abandoned the ship, they are in the process of trying to find a possible option to resolve this problem as soon as possible”.  Frustration at the inability to pin Go to any definite commitment on the when and how of refloating showed in the subsequent interpellation, until finally Chairman Puentevella remarked, “anyway, we will invite the [Oriental] Assurance (sic) Company next week in order to find out what they plan to do.”

 Fastforward to 15 days later: Oriental Insurance said it refused Sulpicio’s notice of abandonment.  And two days later, the papers said that the contract signed by Sulpicio with Titan Salvage Corp. does not involve refloating of the Princess of the Stars. 

 Go was also questioned by Hon. Rafeal Mariano of Anakpawis, who cornered him into admitting that Sulpicio had no contingency plan for the refloating of its vessels.  And to the question of who had the ultimate decision on whether to sail or not in bad weather, Go uttered what has become a much repeated mantra: “Your Honor, under the ISM Code, the master has overall overriding authority to decide.”

 When Go gave a similar answer to Hon. Ruffy Biazon, lone district of Muntinglupa, Chairman Puentevella interjected: “…I have to warn you na we will not take it na if the captain says ituloy niya, who is the captain? The captain is being paid.  The owner of the ship will lose millions.  You will pay so much, you will lose many lives.  So the captain will never override the ruling or the decision of management.  I have to guide you there because I disagree, okay?”

 Still, Go’s adherence to the principle of the captain’s “overriding authority” was unshakable.  When confronted by a situation wherein the passengers would be in danger, Go told Biazon, “we [Sulpicio’s management] can give the suggestion and if the captain can assure us…”

 Before he could finish his sentence, Biazon called Go’s attention to the difference between “a suggestion and an order”.  Go, replied “If there is imminent danger we will have to make the order,sir.”  Hon. Eduardo Zialcita, 1st District, Parañaque,  jumped in to point out the inconsistency of his response with previous answers, but Chairman Puentevella gave back the floor to Biazon who moved on to the observed lack of improvement on the level of competency of Sulpicio’s officers and crew.  Go’s reply, which had by now become characteristically unresponsive, was: “No, Your Honor, we have a (sic) constant training for all our officers.” 

 Other congressmen too were also able to extract admissions from Go.   Golez got the admission that by 11:30 am of June 21, Sulpicio already knew that the ship was listing to the left and could hardly steer further and that earlier, at 6:30 a.m. the ship had told them that the sea condition was “from moderate to rough.” Hon. Edsel Lagman, 1st District, Albay, insisted on getting a copy of the insurance policy. Enough equipment was on board, as admitted to Zialcita, to enable the ship to know the state of the weather without relying on PAGASA.  Go further admitted that the Php200,000 Sulpicio were giving to the families of the victims was at best an advance; the insurance company was to reimburse them.   Finally, Cuenco pointed out that Sulpicio would not give the advance if the recipients do not sign a quitclaim.

 By the end of the first day of the Puentebella hearings, Sulpicio’s credibility, like the Princess of the Stars on June 20, had sailed out in the open darkness.  But by then, my media colleagues on whose accounts of the hearings I had relied, as well as their stories, were about to go to bed.  Hence, the seeming, and certainly not intended, listing of the reportage of my colleagues.