MANILA — It has been more than a decade since Romonita Kibir and more than 100 other Filipinos drowned when a passenger ferry went down off the northern coast of Mindanao in the Philippines.
There were no lifeboats or life rafts on board when water began rushing in through a crack in the ship's hull on March 5, 1977. For many critical minutes, none of the ship's officers warned the passengers that the ship was sinking. And when it finally became clear that the ship was doomed, the passageways were so jammed with people and cargo that many passengers were unable to get off.
The name of the ferry: Dona Paz. Its owner: the Sulpicio Lines.
Last Dec. 20, another Sulpicio Lines ferry, a 35-year-old vessel also named Dona Paz--renamed after the 1977 sinking--collided with the tanker Vector and sank off Mindoro Island in the Philippines. As many as 3,000 lives may have been lost in what has been described as the world's worst peacetime sea disaster.
Court records indicate that the two incidents have more in common than the vessels' name and owner.
After the first Dona Paz went down, Kibir's son, Diosdado, sued the Sulpicio Lines. A hearing was ordered, and after two years of testimony Manila Judge Herminio Mariano concluded that the owners had failed to provide lifesaving equipment, that the ship's officers had failed to order the passengers to abandon ship and that the ship was not fit to put to sea at the time.
On June 13, 1979, Judge Mariano fined Sulpicio and ordered payment of exemplary damages. He said the action should "serve as a stern warning for common carriers to safeguard the life and limbs of their passengers."
But aside from these penalties, involving only a few thousand dollars in all, no action has been taken against the Sulpicio Lines, a firm that has since become the largest passenger carrier in the Philippines.
This is just one detail in the mass of information that has come to light since the December sinking that points up the chaos that characterizes maritime affairs in the Philippines.
In a country that consists of about 7,100 islands and half a million square miles of territorial waters, more than 16 million people a year--passengers on ships--are imperiled because of lax regulation and enforcement.
Documents, testimony and interviews with shipping sources show that passenger vessels routinely put to sea although dangerously overcrowded; that many ship's officers are not qualified for their assignments; that coast guard inspections for seaworthiness are perfunctory at best, either because of corrupt practices or insufficient manpower; that no effective deterrent punishment is prescribed for negligent ship owners; that although 867 vessels have been involved in accidents in Philippine waters in the past six years, at the cost of thousands of lives, the government has not established effective rescue procedures.
Much of the problem can be traced to the economic difficulties President Corazon Aquino inherited after her predecessor, Ferdinand E. Marcos, was deposed almost two years ago. The Philippine coast guard, for example, has so little money that its men patrol in the \o7 banca\f7 , the traditional Philippine outrigger.
Under a proposed reorganization, the central government was to take responsibility for regulating maritime affairs, but the idea was abandoned last year for political reasons, leaving most maritime-related agencies at sea over who is responsible for what.
"Right now, it's almost pure anarchy," one government official said, asking not to be identified by name. "I'm not saying the Dona Paz disaster could have been averted if the reorganization had gone through, but certainly we would have avoided the many more disasters that are almost sure to come."
Even the investigations and relief programs initiated after the December sinking are so disorganized that Ramon Mitra, the Speaker of the Philippine house and a staunch Aquino supporter, recently chastised the government.
'Tainted Good Name'
Referring to the investigation into the December incident, Mitra said, "The probe is in a terrible mess, and however you look at it, it has probably already tainted whatever good name this administration has in the matter of its capability of running the government."
There have been nearly a dozen hearings by Congress and the Board of Marine Inquiry, which is to determine who was at fault in the Dec. 20 sinking.
Attorneys for many of the victims and for the companies that owned the ferry and the tanker have all complained that the board cannot be totally impartial because its five members are either active-duty or former coast guard officers and because, as prescribed by law, the board is headed by a coast guard deputy commandant.
Jose Sison, attorney for the tanker's owners, the Vector Shipping Corp., said it would be next to impossible for the board to blame the coast guard itself for the collision.
"I feel that this board is no longer impartial," he said.