Sinking ferries: The difference between Philippines and Korea

Two ferry accidents in Philippines and Korea
Two ferry accidents in Philippines and Korea

Two separate ferry incidents happening 6 years apart, and causing the senseless drowning of hapless passengers, got me thinking about the big difference between neighbours Philippines and Korea.

A day ago, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that Edgar Go, the owner of M/V Princess of the Stars ferry, which sank in the Philippines in June 2008, was not criminally liable for the death of at least 250+ people in the country’s 2nd worst maritime tragedy.

Two months ago, in June, the trial of the captain of South Korean ferry Sewol, which capsized in April 2014, has started. Lee Joon-Seok and some of his crew are facing possible death penalty for the incident that drowned over 300, most of them schoolchildren on a trip. Several of the survivors testified in the case that involved charges ranging from negligence to homicide.

Not long after, in late July, the lifeless body of Yoo Byung-un, 73, was found. The wealthy businessman who headed the family that owned the operator of Sewol was the target for more than two months of South Korea’s largest manhunt. The cause of his death is unknown since his body has already decomposed. He had suitcases of cash at hand, empty bottles of alcohol, and a book he had written.

The characters in the Korean tragedy — the worst maritime tragedy in the country in 20 years — seem to be more colorful. They also seemed remorseful. The Sewol captain faced the public and made a tearful apology for abandoning the ship as most passengers stuck to their seats, heeding the ferry officials’ announcement to stay still and behave, even as waters started to engulf the listing ferry.

I don’t remember hearing an apology from the personalities involved in the Philippine tragedy. The owners and executives of Sulpicio Lines treated the grieving relatives with a display of power and arrogance, prioritising their legal moves instead of, say, preparing comfortable waiting rooms so the distraught ones wouldn’t burn under the sun while awaiting news. The corporate lawyers handled press coverages with their chin up, and the owners, the Gos only appeared publicly during court hearings.

Both tragedies put a spotlight on personal stories of loss and anger toward the parties responsible for the incident. There was a stark difference. though, and it reflected the economic status of the ferry passengers in both.

The family members and loved ones of those in MV Princess of the Stars were almost immediately offered  P10,000 for each casualty — if they signed quit claims first and promised not to be part of the class suit against Sulpicio Lines. Some grudgingly received it, while those who stuck to their sense of justice kept a steady supply of dramatic quotes to news reporters.

The same Filipino businessmen have been in this situation before. The Philippines’ history of maritime tragedies has Sulpicio-owned ships all over it, but for every tragedy the businessmen went scot-free. They were never held accountable — even amid public outrage.

Filipinos’ memory of these incidents is short, and news coverage of this magnitude always called for reminders. The recent news of the high court’s decision may make the lives lost in the Princess of the Stars incident just another addition to the shipping industry’s sad statistics. Ferry passengers are those from the lower economic segments of the population who still cannot afford the already reduced cost of flying from one island to the next.

The Korean incident, on the other hand, was also packed with moving stories of personal loss, but there were public apologies everywhere, as well as calls for the “stern punishment” for “anyone responsible for the accident and criminally at fault.”

Blame was acknowledged instead of deflected. Prime minister Chung Hong-won stepped down. The owners (who engineered a complicated ownership structure involving investment firms and holding companies) were hunted down by the authorities. It did not culminate in the plum orchard discovery of Yoo Byung-un’s dead body. Even his heirs in other countries may face liability.

It also triggered a nationwide soul-searching. “Sewol ferry tragedy has led to questions in a society that put rapid economic growth before safety concerns,” wrote the Guardian. “South Korea has a history of disasters, from building collapses to plane crashes. But the slow sinking of a passenger ferry last month has become its Hurricane Katrina moment, a failed test of capability in a country obsessed with progress and success.”

It’s a single incident that would likely trigger sincere change from the inside out — in corporate Korea and the bureaucracy. The Philippine tragedy does not appear to have had the same impact. Too many deaths and sob stories, yet no person or entity has been punished. That’s the greatest sad story of all.

The Philippine story doesn’t end there, however. These series of sea tragedies helped fuel an alternative island-to-island transportation: budget flights. The more passengers filled the economy seats in different routes, the more the fares became affordable. Except for short island hops, the previously lucrative passenger shipping business has been virtually wiped out. As most shipping firms stuck to cargo, passengers packed the planes.

Perhaps, justice has different shades.


For more details on the two incidents, see the summaries below:

The Philippine case 

The Supreme Court did not agree that Go “deliberately failed to exercise due diligence” when he allowed the ferry officers to decide for themselves to seek shelter or continue their sea travel amid a storm. Go has an official title of first vice president for administration at the Sulpicio Lines, which operated a fleet of passenger and cargo ships plying Philippine seas.

The public storm warning at the time was Signal No. 3 (Category 2) over Romblon province, which covers the coastal area where the ship tipped over. The ferry was bound for Cebu and left Manila on June 20, 2008, a day after the entire country was told that Typhoon Frank (international codename Fengshen) is coming.

The 24-year-old vessel sailed for a 22-hour journey to Cebu with a total of 862 onboard — 751 manifested passengers, 81 of whom were children, and 111 crew members. Only 259 were confirmed dead since most of them were trapped inside the sunken ship, their bodies never recovered despite the efforts of over 100 divers from the Philippine Coast Guard and US Navy. Rescue and retrieval operations were stopped since the capsized ferry contained large quantities of highly toxic chemicals.

Only 32 people survived. Florencio Marimon, the ferry captain who was the most senior and most experienced captain in Sulpicio Lines, was among the dead.

This Supreme Court’s decision means Go’s liability in the sinking of the ferry was merely civil in nature, not criminal, since it “arises from the contract of carriage,” said the high court, agreeing with the earlier decision of the Court of Appeals. The CA earlier cited the Code of Commerce on the “liability of ship owners and ship captains.”

It is the captain who “has control over all the departments of service in the vessel and reasonable discretion as to its navigation,” not the owner, in this case, Go, who, as a ranking official, has the main responsibility of merely supervising officials and personnel of the shipping line.

Six long years after the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy, no one has been made accountable for the lost lives yet. Blame was ping-ponged among government agencies, the private enterprise, and the individuals in between:

The Coast Guard was put to task for giving clearance to the captain even if the vessel would sail through the path of the typhoon. The coast guard, in turn, had put the blame on ship owners, saying it is the owners’ responsibility to decide to sail the ship in bad weather. Sulpicio Lines filed a civil case against the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) and its two officials for reportedly giving wrong weather forecast (Case was dismissed).

An investigation by the Board of Marine Inquiry found Sulpicio Lines and its captain criminally liable for the tragedy and recommended the suspension of the shipping lines’ franchise. The 5-man team blamed human error, and ruled that the ship captain “miscalculated” the risks, while Sulpicio Lines was found “negligent for its failure to exercise its duty in ensuring that they transport passengers and cargo safely to (their) destination.”

The Department of Justice then sued Go for reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide, serious physical injuries, and damage to properties. The courts thumbed down Go’s criminal liability.

The shipping line continues to operate under a new name, Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp.

It seemed the best the dead’s loved ones will get as a form of justice will be getting paid.
The Korean case

The courtroom drama in the trial of the captain of the sunken Sewol ferry and his crew has been temporarily eclipsed by the discovery of the body of Yoo Byung-un, one of the Korean family members in the complicated ownership structure of the shipping company.

It is not known if foul play is involved or if he took his own life since his corpse was already 80% decomposed. DNA tests confirmed the body was that of Yoo’s, the co-founder of a church which made its own organic ice cream, and was accused of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion. A reward of 500 million won ($488,000) had been posted for information leading to his arrest, the largest possible amount under South Korean criminal law.

According to the Guardian: “His sons, Yoo Dae-gyun and Yoo Hyuck-ki, were majority owners of the shipping company Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd through an investment vehicle and had direct or indirect stakes in nine business affiliates connected to the Sewol. Wanted posters for the capture of Yoo and his elder son, Yoo Dae-gyun, have been posted throughout the country. The younger son, Yoo Hyuck-ki, has been based in the United States, where he controlled several businesses with links to Yoo Byung-un and his church.” A senior prosecutor has said efforts have been made to work with US law enforcement authorities to capture Yoo Hyuck-ki, who was considered Yoo’s heir-apparent.

Chonghaejin Marine operates Sewol ferry, which sank on April 16, 2014 after travelling too fast on a turn while on a routine trip from the mainland to the holiday island of Jeju. Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 325 were Dawon high school pupils on an organised outing. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.

The Sewol’s 15 surviving crew members, including the captain, are facing trial on charges ranging from homicide to manslaughter to negligence. If found guilty of “homicide through wilful negligence,” Sewol captain Lee Joon-Seok and three senior crew members may receive the death penalty though many doubt this will be carried out amid a moratorium. Eleven other crew are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.

The captain and some of his crew were caught on video among the first to abandon the ship as it was about to sink, leaving behind children who followed the cabin crew’s instructions to stay put.

An investigation showed that some of the crew changed into civilian clothes before boarding the rescue boats that had arrived. They also reportedly did not inform the passengers that rescue was already available despite instructions from the maritime safety authorities that the crew should facilitate passenger evacuation.

Initial investigations suggest the ferry was carrying up to 3x its safe cargo capacity.

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