31 dead, 171 missing

Coast Guard and Navy rescuers race against time to find 171 missing persons after a cargo ship collided with a passenger vessel in the waters off Talisay City, Cebu Friday night, which left at least 31 people dead. The 2Go Travel-owned MV St. Thomas Aquinas with 700 people on board, sank 33-meters deep a few minutes after cargo ship Sulpicio Express Siete, owned by Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (formerly Sulpicio Lines, Inc.), rammed its starboard (right rear portion) at the vicinity of Lawis Ledge (between Mactan and Cebu) around 8:45 pm. Sulpicio Express Siete did not sink.
RESCUE  OPERATIONS.  Coast Guard official Ramil Palbrica point out Lawis Ledge where the collision took place on Friday. Danny Pata RESCUE OPERATIONS. Coast Guard official Ramil Palbrica point out Lawis Ledge where the collision took place on Friday. Danny Pata
As of press time, 629 people were reported to have survived the incident, including all the 36 crew members of Sulpicio Express Siete. Rear Admiral Luis Tuason Jr., Coast Guard vice commandant for operations who was tapped by Coast Guard chief Isorena to lead the Board of Marine Inquiry tasked to investigate the incident, warned that the death toll would inevitably rise. “It did not take long, about 10 minutes, before the ferry sank,” Tuason said. “The captain managed to declare abandon ship and they distributed life jackets but, because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside.” In Malacanang, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government would provide assistance to the victims of the collision, in addition to the help being extended by the shipping companies. “Handa naman tayong magbigay ng kahit anong assistance na kailangan nila. As of the current situation, the management of 2Go Shipping Lines is providing relief assistance to them,” Valte said. She added that the shipping company has extended temporary shelters, hot meals, and medical assistance to the survivors.            Valte said concerned government agencies and search and rescue assets are working together to look for survivors. Meanwhile, outgoing United States ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr., expressed his deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the recent sea tragedy. “On behalf of the U.S. Embassy, I wish to offer my deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of the ferry MV Thomas Aquinas,” he said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of you as you grieve the loss of the life that resulted from this tragedy,” Thomas added. Tuason, meanwhile, said that the (first group of) “divers are using regular oxygen in their search and rescue and allowed only five minutes under the sea.” Aside from the Coast Guard - Special Operations Group, technical divers from both the Navy and Coast Guard were deployed to assist in the search and rescue operations. The second dive will penetrate for 20 to 25 minutes to rescue those trapped. We also requested a chopper (from Manila to Cebu) to do aerial survey to locate any life raft somewhere,” he said. The Coast Guard sent rescue vessels BRP Pampanga and BRP Nueva Ecija to assist in the rescue operation, while a s[ecial team from the Maritime Protection Command was also deployed after oil sheen was spotted in the area. “They set up oil spill booms equipment on board the ship and we arranged a helicopter from the Armed Forces central command for aerial search,” Tuason said. As this developed, the Maritime Industry Authority ordered the suspension of all vessels owned by 2Go Travel and Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. Covered by the suspension order were three passengers and 15 cargo vessels of PSACC and five passengers of 2Go Travel. Marina administrator Maximo Mejia Jr. said the ships will not be allowed to sail and will be subjected to inspection to determine their present condition and stability. “Most of these ships are out at sea. Ibig sabihin ng suspension hindi sila pwedeng umalis hangga’t hindi dumarating inspectors ng Marina. Titignan at siguraduhin ang kanilang safety management system. I-vavalidate safety management system,” said Mejia. He added that the agency will also conduct its own investigation to determine the criminal and administrative liability of those involved in the tragedy. “Makitid ang lugar na iyun. There is specific lane for the outgoing and incoming. Mukhang doon nagkaroon ng problema,” Mejia said. Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya said the absence of vessel traffic monitoring system in the area was not the reason for the collision. “Maraming factor na dapat tayong i-consider sa pangyayaring ito. Kaya nga magkakaron tayo ng dalawang imbestigasyon, isa sa Coast Guard at isa sa Marina, upang malaman natin ang tunay na nangyari,” he said. But Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels had violated rules on which lanes they should use when travelling in and out of the port. MIA enforcement office chief Arnie Santiago, said the strait leading into the Cebu port was a well-known danger zone. “It is a narrow passage, many ships have had minor accidents there in the past. But nothing this major,” Santiago said. “There is a blind spot there and each ship passing through needs to give way in a portion of that narrow strip.” Officials said the instability of the 2Go ship could be raised once the probe started, citing that the passenger ship sunk just few minutes after the collision. Tuason said that the ship captains of both Express Siete and MV St. Thomas Aquinas survived the incident and are now assisting authorities in their operations. Initial investigation showed that the 9.691-gross ton Sulpicio ship was on its way to Davao from Cebu while the 11,405-gross ton MV St. Thomas Aquinas, with 832 people (passengers and crew) on board, came from Butuan to Cebu when the incident happened. Coast Guard officials said at least 23 infants and 20 children, were among the passengers of MV St. Thomas Aquinas. The Sulpicio Express Siete is owned and operated by PSACC, formerly known as Sulpicio Lines, Inc., that also owned vessel MV Doña Paz, which was  involved in the country’s worst maritime incident on December 20, 1987 that resulted in the death of 4,375 people. Other Sulpicio ships involved in sea tragedies were MV Doña Marilyn and MV Princess of the Orient in 1998, and MV Princess of the Stars on June 21, 2008. All incidents happened during bad weather conditions. 2Go Travel, on the other hand, owns MV St. Thomas Aquinas, formerly known as SuperFerry-2. The firm, part of the 2Go Group, was formerly known as Aboitiz Superferry. Sea tragedy involving Aboitiz Superferry ships includes SuperFerry-6 and SuperFerry-12 that caught fire on October 2000 and September 2006, respectively; SuperFerry-14 that was bombed by suspected terrorist, leaving 116 people dead, and the September 2009 sinking of SuperFerry-9 that resulted in the death of nine people. With  Maricel V. Cruz, Sara Susanne Fabunan and AFP
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