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Cablegate: Rapid U.S./Philippines Response to Ferry Sinking Saves

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OO RUEHCHI RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHML #1909/01 2530253
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 100253Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY MANILA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5129
INFO RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS IMMEDIATE
RHHMUNA/USPACOM HONOLULU HI IMMEDIATE
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RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATE
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RUWDQAB/NTSB WASHDC IMMEDIATE
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 MANILA 001909

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR EAP/EX AND EAP/MTS
STATE PASS USAID

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAID SOCI EAGR SENV PREL RP
SUBJECT: RAPID U.S./PHILIPPINES RESPONSE TO FERRY SINKING SAVES
LIVES

REF: A) MANILA 1504 B) Manila 1521 C) Manila 1543 D) Manila 1560

1. (SBU) Summary: In yet another major maritime disaster, a large
ferry carrying 968 manifested passengers and crew sank September 6
off the southwest coast of Mindanao island. As of early afternoon
September 9, the Philippines National Disaster Coordinating Council
(NDCC) reported nine confirmed fatalities, and 959 rescued
passengers from Superferry 9. All the dead are identified and none
are American citizens. At the request of the Armed Forces of the
Philippines (AFP), U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force -
Philippines (JSOTF-P) maritime and air assets assisted Philippine
military and civilian in rescue and recovery. The Philippine
Government has confined to port other vessels of the ferry's parent
company, suspended the crew and taken the ferry's captain into
custody. The Philippine Coast Guard has scheduled an inquiry to
begin September 10. Philippine and international media reports have
recognized U.S. efforts and Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto
Teodoro personally thanked the Ambassador for the assistance
provided. End Summary.

2. (SBU) According to the Philippine National Disaster Coordinating
Council (NDCC), the Philippine Coast Guard received a distress call
at approximately 0330 hours on September 6 that MV Superferry 9
(SF9) of the Aboitz Transport System Corporation was listing heavily
ten nautical miles west of Siocon city, Zamboanga del Norte. The
vessel was carrying 968 manifested persons. After all passengers
and crew abandoned ship, SF9 capsized and then submerged at 0910
hours. Although the September 9 edition of the Malaya newspaper
reported the recovery of a tenth body, a NDCC spokesman told EconOff
at 1400 hours on September 9 that until the tenth fatality was
confirmed by the Coast Guard the NDCC would maintain its position
that all manifested passengers and crew are accounted for, with nine
confirmed fatalities and 959 rescued survivors. All the dead are
identified and none are American citizens.

3. (SBU) Air and water craft from the Philippine Air Force, Navy,
and Coast Guard, as well as civilian fishing and commercial vessels
responded to the distress call. The U.S. Joint Special Operations
Task Force - Philippines (JSOTF-P) received a request for support
from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and immediately
dispatched maritime vessels with rescue swimmers, medical personnel
and supplies. The JSOTF-P vessels searched a 25 square mile area
for survivors, delivered water to a Philippine Navy vessel carrying
survivors, and ferried one injured female to hospital in Zamboanga
City. A JSOTF-P helicopter transported AFP leadership to the scene
and then assisted the search for survivors.

4. (SBU) Passengers quoted in media reports attributed the sinking
to various causes. Some described the ferry as already listing upon
departure from General Santos city, while others noted that cargo
loudly shifted mid-voyage, after which the crew ordered passengers
to the opposite side of the vessel to compensate for the ship's
listing. Still other passengers said the ships' engines stopped
working, and others blamed a crack in the hull for the sinking. Mr.
Tino Sison, Deputy Chief for Operations for the NDCC told EconOff
that the absence of a fire or explosion discounted terrorist
involvement, and that an official explanation would have to wait for
results of a government investigation.

5. (SBU) On September 7 the Philippine Department of
Transportation's Maritime Industry Authority ordered the Aboitz
Corporation to cease operating ten of its transport vessels and
suspended the 112 crew members of SF9. The vessel's captain is in
Coast Guard custody. Aboitz appealed the suspension the next day,
asking that four vessels in its fleet be exempted because they had
passed technical and safety inspections this year. That exemption
was partially granted on September 9 with the suspension limited to
the remaining four superferry vessels in the firm's fleet. The
Philippine Coast Guard announced that it would lead a special board
of marine inquiry September 10 to investigate the sinking.

Oil Spill to Follow?

6. (SBU) A four square mile oil slick has officials worried that the
ferry's fuel as well as 250 tons of oil cargo carried by the vessel
may be leaking. The Coast Guard has deployed a vessel equipped with
spill booms to assess and monitor leakage from the sunken ferry.
Similarly, the Aboitz Corporation has retained the service of a
private oil response vessel, the Harbor Star.

A Deadly Tradition Continues

MANILA 00001909 002 OF 002

7. (SBU) The sinking of SF9 is only the latest in a long series of
maritime catastrophes. Three other vessels sank in Philippine
waters with the loss of two lives in the days before and after the
SF9 went down. In May, 12 lives were lost when the ferry MV
Commander 6 sank south of Manila, while four 2008 ferry disasters
claimed over 900 lives (Reftels). The Philippines' deadliest
maritime disaster, the 1987 sinking of the ferry Dona Paz that cost
over 4,000 lives, was the subject of an August 25 National
Geographic channel documentary.

Budget Airlines and Government Subsidies Squeeze Private Ferries

8. (SBU) Founded by one of the country's leading families in 1907,
and once a mainstay of inter-island travel, the Aboitz Transport
System Corporation has seen increasing numbers of its customers
switch to budget airlines and government subsidized-roll-on roll-off
vessels ('ro-ros'). While a Manila to Cebu ferry trip is an all day
affair, local budget airline Cebu Pacific makes the trip in just
over an hour. The ro-ros, by making regular stops at smaller
islands not served by the larger shipping companies, have seen
passenger traffic increase from 130,000 to 700,000 passengers
between 2003 and 2007, according to Henry Basilio, a transportation
expert at the University of Asia and the Pacific. In response,
shipping companies such as Aboitz have slashed ticket prices by 80
percent or more but have been forced to rely increasingly on cargo
when the volume of passenger traffic did not rebound.

Comment:

9. (SBU) While extreme weather contributes to Philippines'
unenviable reputation as the maritime disaster capital of the world,
poor maintenance, overloading, and lax enforcement of safety
regulations are also to blame. Whether squeezed profit margins led
the Aboitz Corp. to cut safety corners or overload cargo in this
case will likely be addressed during the upcoming Coast Guard
investigation.

10. (SBU) On a positive note, the aberration in this case was the
small number of casualties. The quick and effective response of the
Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine Coast Guard,
civilian mariners and JSOTF-P greatly minimized the loss of life.
The significant contribution of U.S. forces demonstrated our strong
commitment and partnership with the Republic of the Philippines,
which was noted both in Philippine and international news media
reports and in the personal thanks expressed by Defense Secretary
Teodoro to the Ambassador. JSOTF-P's good work on the ferry
accident serves as the latest example of the important benefits that
U.S. forces, operating under the Visiting Forces Agreement, provide
to the Philippines. End comment.

KENNEY

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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