Asia Continues to Wrestle with Ferry Safety

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Bullit Marquez / AP

Rescuers approach the sunken passenger ferry the MV Princess of the Stars to conduct a search-and-rescue operation off the Sibuyan Sea in central Philippines on Wednesday, June 25, 2008

To many living in Asia, the news on Jan. 11 that an Indonesian ferry had capsized in heavy seas, with hundreds of passengers presumed drowned, was sadly familiar. In some of the region's poorest countries, passenger vessels large and small are an essential mode of public transportation used by millions of travelers a year. They are also perhaps the most dangerous.

Airline disasters may grab the front-page headlines, but in Asia, ferry accidents are more common — and deadlier. Last year, nearly 1,500 people perished in nine major ferry accidents in the region. The death toll for airline crashes in Asia was 93 in four incidents. Last year's biggest ferry disaster occurred on June 21 in the Philippines, when the MV Princess of the Stars foundered and capsized, taking almost 800 lives. More people died in that accident than in the largest air-travel disaster in history — the 1977 runway collision between two 747s in Tenerife, Spain, which killed 583 people. (Read "How to Survive a Disaster.")

The Tenerife crash resulted in a bout of airline-industry soul-searching. Significant changes subsequently were made to international flight regulations and practices, including the implementation of new cockpit procedures and the standardization of English as the industry's universal language of operation. (Read "Indonesia's Year of Living Dangerously.")

But in the aftermath of ferry disasters, while blame is usually assigned, little is done to prevent recurrences. Asian government officials say there is widespread awareness that maritime safety ought to be improved — but that budget constraints and bureaucratic roadblocks impede progress.

Ferry accidents are all too common in Asia partly because of geographic and demographic circumstances. Countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines are heavily populated archipelagos with thousands of far-flung islands. It's axiomatic that their masses of poor citizens travel in the cheapest way possible: by boat. The sheer number of Asians traveling across open waters in a part of the world where typhoons are frequent increases the odds that mishaps will occur and death tolls will be high.

But the direct cause of ferry accidents is almost always human error and negligence, not geography or acts of God, officials say. Captains, prodded by fleet operators to keep on schedule and make money, repeatedly take risks ranging from filling aging vessels beyond safe capacity to setting sail in dangerous weather, according to maritime-industry regulators. In the Philippines, for example, ferry captains are required to submit a document called the Master Oath of Safety Departure (MOSD) — testifying that the vessel meets all requirements and disclosing the number of passengers on board — to the coast guard before every sailing. But "the shipping industry wants to earn income," says Lieutenant Garydele Gimotea, spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard. Overloading is commonplace, and documents are frequently falsified, he says. "What they sometimes submit is not really the actual count of the number of passengers," Gimotea says.

Inadequate regulation and oversight makes it difficult to force changes on the industry. In the Philippines, a country of about 25,000 coastal barangays, or villages, it's impossible to monitor the comings and goings of every vessel. The coast guard's staff of about 5,000 employees is insufficient to patrol the country's 35,000 km (21,747 miles) of coastline. In a Dec. 14 accident, when the MB Mae Jan, bound for the town of Aparri, capsized, killing 45, there was no coast-guard detachment present in the area, so there was no one to review the MOSD or prevent the overloaded vessel from sailing. "That's really the problem that we have," says Gimotea. "To regulate, I really believe that the numbers should be increased to monitor these violations."

Little by little, the Philippines is trying to improve ferry safety, says Elena Bautista, transport undersecretary and Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) administrator. MARINA recently mandated that all people traveling on open-deck passenger vessels wear life vests. In addition, the authority is launching a hotline for reporting incidents of overcrowding and other safety violations, plans to train local government officials to monitor and report unsafe vessels, and will provide ferry captains with additional training in typhoon avoidance. Ferry operators who ignore the rules will face steeper fines and punishment, says Bautista. "You just need the political will to let them know, This time you will not get away with it," she says. "I don't think people should be dying because of negligence."

But it's unclear whether the moves will save lives any time soon. In May, Indonesian lawmakers approved sweeping new regulations for the maritime industry, including measures boosting safe operating procedures. But the law has yet to be fully implemented. "We've done about 40% to 50% of what we need to do," said Jusman Djamal, Indonesia's transport minister, during a Jan. 12 press conference held in the wake of the country's latest deadly accident. The previous day, a ferry traveling from Pare-Pare on the west coast of Sulawesi island to the Indonesian city of Samarinda had rolled over in a storm. So far, only 35 survivors and two bodies have been found. Up to 330 people still missing are feared dead.

Still, the danger deters few travelers. On a balmy afternoon just before Christmas, Manila resident Maristella Cempron waited patiently for her SuperFerry at Manila's crowded South Harbor. It was just a week after the MB Mae Jan accident. The 27-year-old security guard admitted to "having some jitters." But she wanted to return to her family for the holidays. "I'll take the risk," Cempron says. Bautista, the transport undersecretary, sums up the problem: "The main issue here is the safety culture of the Philippines," she says. "We have very, very low regard for safety."

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