Will you suspect a shipping line's competence if they become involved in five sea mishaps in the Philippine sea? What if one of those is the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster, surpassing the iconic Titanic? What if the four more maritime accidents occurred after that worst tragedy? What if you have learned that they still have the nerves to admit they were involved in these misfortunes that claimed more than 5,000 lives? Will you doubt what makes these 'sailing coffins' cruising over the waters?
The Sulpicio Lines once filed a remarkable civil case against the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) for "gross negligence and incompetence" in forecasting the path of a typhoon, which the shipping lines blamed for the sinking of their ship. What a nice move to get out of any accountability, isn't it? Fortunately, the regional trial court handling it dismissed the case.
But before tackling the five sea tragedies brought by Sulpicio, be introduced with their background first. Sulpicio Lines' name was derived from its founder, Don Sulpicio Go, an Amoy merchant who went to the country to set up a base in Naval, Leyte, to trade with neighboring islands. He got into shipping in 1946 when he became the General Manager of Carlos A. Gothong Shipping Lines and eventually the company's managing partner in 1953.
In 1973, he decided to venture on his own together with his sons, which gave birth to the carrier with his namesake, starting with only 12 vessels. The company later expanded to other shipping-related industries such as copra trading, general merchandising, fabrication and repair, trucking, and towage. These brought seven-fold gross tonnage in his fleet from its original tonnage of 12,033.17 to 114,000. The company was also able to serve practically across the country with over 2,500 employees. With these feathers on the cap of Sulpicio, the company was undeniably capable of attaining the peak of its success. But in every milestone that Sulpicio attained in their business was a trail of controversies that haunts their organization.
On the night of December 20, 1987, the 2,250-ton MV Doña Paz was sailing the waters of Tablas Strait, near Marinduque approaching Manila on a trip that originated from Tacloban, Leyte and passed by Catbalogan, Samar. Its manifest recorded 1,493 passengers and a 53-member crew. Still, the survivor accounts showed that the vessel was carrying more than 4,000 passengers, more than twice its allowable capacity of 1,518 passengers and 60 crew members. While most of the passengers slept, Doña Paz collided with the 629-ton MV Vector, transporting 9,000 barrels of fuel products from Bataan to Masbate owned by Caltex Philippines.
Upon collision, petroleum products carried by Vector ignited on the ship and spread on Doña Paz. The survivors were forced to jump off the ship and swim among burned bodies in flaming waters. The passing MS Don Claudio crews saw the explosion and picked up the survivors by throwing a net. Doña Paz sank within two hours of the collision while Vector sank within four hours in a 1,788 feet shark-infested Tablas Strait. The passing ship only rescued 26 passengers, 25 from Doña Paz and two from Vector. It took eight hours for the authorities to know the accident and another eight hours to conduct search-and-rescue operations.
The Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) found that Vector Shipping Corporation had no license to operate the vessel, and its crew was equipped to set off the tanker. Sulpicio Lines was discharged of any liability for the incident. Meanwhile, the two chambers of Congress exposed the flaws on the part of both Doña Paz and Vector and the dangerous lapses in the maritime industry of the country.
In 1999, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the liability of Victor to compensate the victims of the tragedy. Of more than 4,000 casualties of the tragedy, only cases for six victims were known as resolved by local courts, which led to other families accepting small claims through extrajudicial settlements. In 2017, the victims' heirs were compensated 200,000 pesos each by Caltex International as ruled by the Orleans Civil District Court in Louisiana, USA. This collision was tagged as the deadliest peacetime maritime tragedy in the world’s history.
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Almost a year after the Doña Paz tragedy, another sea mishap damaged the already harmed reputation of Sulpicio. During the daytime of October 23, 1988, MV Doña Marilyn was on its way from Manila to Tacloban City, carrying more than 500 people when they encountered large waves and strong winds brought by Typhoon Unsang. After an hour, the captain decided to reverse course towards North Gigantes island for safety. By 1:30 pm, they radioed a distress signal off to Tanguingui Island, which was the last signal received by the coastal station of Sulpicio Lines in Manila. At around 2:00 pm, the ship sank near Higatangan Island in Biliran. This tragedy left more than 300 people killed while 181 others survived the sinking. Transportation and Communications Secretary Rainerio Reyes announced an indefinite suspension of Sulpicio Lines ferries from their respective ports. Still, the carrier defied the order and demanded formal orders be given to them.
A decade after, another Sulpicio vessel sank in the Philippine waters. On the evening of September 19, 1998, MV Princess of the Orient left Manila for Cebu City when caught up by Typhoon Vicky. Two hours after departure, the ferry suddenly tilted to its port side and was unable to recover. The ship submerged near Fortune Island during noontime and sank. One hundred fifty died out of 388 passengers on board, probably after being trapped inside the ferry or swept away by the waves. Rescuers only arrived after 12 hours of the remaining survivors floating at sea.
After another decade, another Sulpicio fleet took hundreds of lives. MV Princess of the Stars departed Manila en route to Cebu City on June 20, 2008. The vessel was permitted to ship amidst Typhoon Frank because it was large enough to stay afloat in the typhoon's periphery. However, the typhoon unexpectedly changed direction on that day after making landfall at Samar Island. This scenario placed them in danger, which led to its submerging at noontime. According to the final tally, there were 814 deaths and missing and only 56 known survivors, making 870 people on board. This report is contrary to the initial reports of 747 passengers and crew members on board and 866 people aboard reported by Sulpicio Lines.
In the first three days following the accident, only 115 bodies had been recovered. Five months after, the number had climbed to 350, with an additional 500 to be found. The search continued through 2010 when authorities retrieved a further 47 sets of human remains. During the recovery operations, most of the bodies were found floating inside the shipwrecks, trapped when the ship suddenly tilted.
The Board of Marine Inquiry found human error as the primary cause of the accident, highlighting the Captain's poor judgment on the risk associated with navigation in inclement weather. On the other hand, the relatives of the victims’ accused the company owners and the government of negligence as they allowed the ship to get underway despite the stormy weather. Sulpicio, meanwhile, claimed that the Coast Guard never advised the ship about the precaution of sailing.
After the Princess of the Stars tragedy, the Go family decided to let go of carrying passengers and focused on cargo shipping with the company’s new name, Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation.
But despite the name change, disaster still hounds Sulpicio. The newly named PSACC became involved in a sea collision with a passenger vessel that took many lives. 2G0’s St. Thomas Aquinas left Nasipit, Agusan del Norte, for a Cebu trip collided with PSACC’s MV Sulpicio Express Siete near Talisay, Cebu. St. Thomas Aquinas immediately began to take on water, prompting the captain to order the ship abandoned. The crew hurriedly handed out life jackets as hundreds of passengers jumped overboard. Within half an hour, the ship sank. There were 75 recorded deaths and 45 missings. In a Special Board of Marine Inquiry, Captain Gilbert Ian Faller, captain of a Trans-Asia Shipping Lines cargo ship in the area, testified that Sulpicio Line Siete was in the inbound lane instead of the outbound lane.
In January 2015, the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) decided to revoke the company’s certificate of public convenience.
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