THE death toll from the Ormoc sea tragedy rose to 59 as authorities filed murder charges against the owner and crew of the M/B Kim Nirvana-B which capsized off Ormoc City on July 2 enroute to Pilar town in nearby Camotes island.
Coast guard spokesperson Commander Armand Balilo said the 59 dead and 140 rescued would indicate the vessel had at least 199 aboard the motorized banca although its manifest had only 173 passengers and 16 crew for a total of 189 people aboard.
Balilo said they did not expect to find other bodies since all passengers were accounted for, with 59 dead, 140 survivors and no reports of anyone else missing.
Initial investigation revealed that the banca was overloaded in terms of passengers and cargo with rice, cement and fertilizer sacks, he said.
Balilo declined to comment on speculations about the cause of the incident while an investigation is ongoing.
He said owner of the vessel was identified as Jorge Bung Zarco while the captain was Warren Oliverio, both of whom along with some of the crew are under investigation.
“Among the things we will look into is if there was a faulty maneuver, the stability of the vessel, and of course the weather,” Balilo said.
On Friday, the police filed murder charges against Zarco and the crew in Ormoc City, according to Eastern Visayas regional police director Chief Superintendent Asher Dolina.
An initial police investigation and interviews with survivors showed the vessel abruptly turned in waters off the central port of Ormoc on Thursday, causing it to capsize, Dolina told AFP.
“They were not careful, showing there was an intent to kill. They were reckless on purpose,” Dolina said, explaining why they chose to file murder raps, which would require evidence of premeditation.
A total of nineteen people were charged, including Zarco, Oliviero, and 17 crew members, according to Dolina.
Under Philippine law, murder is punishable by up to 40 years imprisonment.
The police investigation is separate from a coast guard inquiry, which will primarily determine the cause of the mishap, but the coast guard may also recommend criminal and administrative charges.
“We filed the charges as soon as we could because we don’t want the suspects to leave the country,” Dolina said.
Fifty-six people were confirmed dead from the sinking, Ormoc city councillor Godiardo Ebcas told AFP.
Overloading of cargo and passengers might have been to blame for the disaster, according to Ebcas, who helped oversee rescue operations.
Survivors reported seeing up to 150 sacks of cement and more of rice and fertiliser in the ship’s cargo area before it capsized in relatively calm seas, he said.
Bloated bodies spilled out of the Kim Nirvana’s wooden hull as a crane lifted it from the water and placed it on Ormoc port, Ebcas added.
The coast guard earlier said the 33-tonne ship could carry 194 people including 178 passengers and 16 crew, but according to the casualty count of the city council, the ship was carrying at least 198.
“The ship might not be too overloaded in terms of passengers, but imagine the weight of its cargo,” Ebcas said.
Each sack of rice, cement and fertilizer weighs 50 kilos and 150 sacks would easily add 7,500 kilos to the ship’s load, excluding passengers, he said.
Passengers on the ferry’s regular route from Ormoc to the Camotes islands regularly bring supplies from the city to their remote fishing villages.
Search operations with rescue divers were stopped on Friday before the ship was lifted to port’s berthing area.
Poorly-maintained, loosely-regulated ferries form the backbone of maritime travel in the Philippines, a sprawling archipelago of 100 million people.
Many sea disasters occur during the typhoon season, which starts in June.
Frequent accidents in recent decades have claimed thousands of lives, including the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster in 1987 when the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 dead. - With AFP
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