Ferry disaster is fifth tragedy for Philippine firm

MANILA - A company whose cargo ship was involved in the Philippines' latest ferry disaster confirmed Saturday its vessels were involved in four other tragedies that claimed more than 5,000 lives.

The first of those accidents occurred in 1987 when the firm's Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 dead in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. chief executive and president Jordan Go told AFP his family's company owned the Dona Paz as well as the ships involved in the four other accidents.

But he insisted the company's track record had nothing to do with the accident on Friday night, when his firm's cargo vessel collided with a ferry that quickly sank, leaving 31 people dead and 171 missing.

"It's immaterial to what happened right now," Go told AFP when asked to comment about the firm's history of accidents.

In Friday's incident, the Sulpicio Express 7 cargo ship was trying to leave the central city of Cebu's port via a narrow channel while the St Thomas Aquinas ferry was trying to sail in the opposite direction, authorities said.

After the vessels collided, the ferry sank within 10 minutes while the cargo vessel was able to reach dock with its steel bow crushed in.

Maximo Mejia, head of government regulatory body the Maritime Industry Authority, said both vessels had previously passed safety inspections and were seaworthy.

"There is no reason to believe that the incident has anything to do with questions of stability or structural integrity of the ships," Mejia told reporters, indicating human error may be to blame.

Mejia noted that officials of both firms had been "fully cooperative", with Philippine Span Asia also helping out in the search.

Nonetheless, Mejia said he had temporarily suspended the fleets of Philippine Span Asia as well as that of 2Go Group, which owned the sunken ferry, pending investigations.

Philippine Span Asia was previously named Sulpicio Lines Inc.

In October 1988, Sulpicio's Dona Marilyn ferry sank off Leyte island amid a typhoon, killing more than 250 people. In 1988, another 150 were killed when the firm's Princess of the Orient sank in a port near Manila in similarly bad weather.

It also owned the MV Princess of the Stars, which set sail during a storm in 2008 and sank. Only about 50 of the 850 people on board survived.

Arnie Santiago, head of the maritime authority's enforcement division, said Sulpicio Lines was suspended after the 2008 disaster, then re-emerged with its new name of Philippine Span Asia.

Go said changing the company name in 2009 was unrelated to the previous accidents, but did not explain what the reasons were.

Go is the grandson of Sulpicio Go, a Chinese Filipino businessman who founded the firm in 1973.

It cornered a major chunk of the domestic shipping industry in the 1980s by taking advantage of a law that reserved domestic routes for Filipinos.

Currently, its fleet consists of two passenger ferries and 10 cargo vessels that operate nationwide, Go said.