The horrific collision between a heavily-laden Philippines ferry and a cargo ship on August 16 has become a double disaster. Dozens of passengers are confirmed dead – with the final figure likely to top 100 – and oil from the sunken ferry is devastating beaches and fishing grounds near the port of Cebu.
As of August 22, the death toll from the sinking of ferry M/V St. Thomas Aquinas had climbed to 71, with 49 others still to be accounted for, but efforts to retrieve bodies trapped in the wreckage have been hampered by bad weather and large waves near Cebu. The rough conditions are also making it almost impossible for authorities to contain the massive oil spill which has contaminated a large section of shoreline and threatens to cause a major environmental catastrophe.
According to the Philippine Star, the ferry was carrying 120,000 liters of bunker fuel, 20,000 liters of lube oil and 20,000 liters of diesel. Although ferry owner 2GO has flown in spill containment experts and has deployed several tugboats with oil spill booms, waves of three to four meters have complicated their task and oil has been wrecking nearby beaches, mangrove swamps, and the region’s largest fishing ground.
“3,000 hectares, and all of it is covered in oil,” said Andelino Sitoy, mayor of nearby Cordova, who estimates the loss to local fisherman at 50 million pesos (about $1.14 million) so far. “We don’t know how much more the impact will be, it depends on the restoration of the seabed,” Mr. Sitoy said. The spill is also likely to have a major impact on tourism in the area, as many travellers visit Cordova for its seafood and beaches.
The St. Thomas Aquinas was carrying 870 passengers and crew when it struck the cargo ship, M/V Sulpicio Express Siete, in the Mactan Channel last week. Philip Tyler, a New Zealander who survived the sinking, said that the scene was like something from the movie “Titanic”. When the two ships collided at around 8:45 p.m. “the ferry just came to a screaming halt and everybody was just jerking and hanging on to what they could,” he said. Mr. Tyler also said that the impact knocked out power on the ferry and that although the crew were doing their best to keep everyone calm, the darkness and lack of an intercom made their job more difficult. “When a cupboard full of lifejackets was opened, it was like a lolly scramble with jackets being torn out of people’s hands.”
Navy 1st Seaman Radarman Richard Pestillos was one of those who witnessed the collision. The ferry crewman reported that “I was alarmed to see an incoming cargo vessel, sailing on the wrong side of the channel, hitting the starboard of our vessel.” According to Pestillos, who was thrown into the water after being hit with a life raft, the ferry sank about ten minutes after impact.
His testimony will be among dozens of accounts reviewed by the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), whose job it is to determine criminal liability. The skippers of both vessels have already filed statements blaming each other for the tragedy.
CNN reports that the narrow strait off Cebu is a notoriously dangerous area for shipping, and that several accidents have occurred there in recent years.