ILOILO CITY—Lehz Ledesma still dreads traveling by boat. When she has to, she goes with a companion or with her family. She also gets scared during brownouts and upon hearing loud thuds.
“You cannot really get over it, even after all these years,” Ledesma said.
Ledesma, 33, was among the surviving passengers of the MV Asia South Korea, which sank around 5 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1999. The ship was on its way to Iloilo City from Cebu City when it hit rock formations 16 kilometers off Bantayan Island in Cebu, creating a hole in the hull.
Fifty-eight people died while 644 other passengers and crew members were rescued.
Ledesma, then a computer programming student of Western Institute of Technology (WIT) in Iloilo City, was among a group of 146 WIT students who went to Cebu for a three-day field trip. She managed to survive with other passengers by staying on a lifeboat for 11 hours.
Six WIT students died in the tragedy.
On April 11, 2000, Ledesma and 68 other complainants, including families of four fatalities, filed a civil case seeking P380 million in damages against the Cebu-based Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. On June 6 this year, or more than 13 years after the sinking, the Iloilo Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 28 issued a decision granting P1.38 million to 17 complainants.
Judge Loida Diestro-Maputol ordered Trans-Asia to pay 13 survivors, including Ledesma, P45,000 each in damages and lawyer’s fees, and the families of Dyna dela Cruz, Maria Nenel Montecastro, Paul Vicent Sy and Nancy Guarnes P188,000 to P215,000 in death indemnification, damages and litigation costs.
Maputol said in her 36-page decision that the shipping line “failed to prove observance of extraordinary diligence” in ensuring the safety of the passengers.
Three years earlier, or in March 2010, Judge Ray Alan Drilon of the Bacolod RTC ordered Trans-Asia to pay damages amounting to P4.8 million to relatives of siblings Jumille Marie and Jesselle Nepacena, and Suzette Tio—who died in the sinking.
The case is still pending in the Court of Appeals.
On Jan. 20, 2011, the Bogo, Cebu Regional Trial Court Branch 61 dismissed a charge of reckless imprudence resulting to multiple homicide and physical injuries against ship captain Porfirio Labagday and chief mate Saturnino Flores.
The Iloilo complainants, through their legal counsel Hector Teodosio, appealed the Iloilo RTC ruling on June 18.
“After 13 years and our unforgettable ordeal, we get P45,000?” Ledesma asked.
She lamented that the families of the fatalities received only from P188,000 to P200,000. “Is that the value of a person’s life now?” she said.
Trans-Asia said it would abide by the court decision and pay the complainants, but insisted that it was not liable for the sinking of the vessel, blaming instead the strong winds and big waves.
“We exerted all efforts and extraordinary diligence to save the passengers. We are willing to pay the amount stated in the court decision as we do not want this case hanging and want to settle this once and for all,” said the company’s lawyer, Dexter Viñan.
But Viñan said the firm was opposing the appeal of the complainants for a higher amount, describing their original demand of P320 million as “grossly excessive.”
Teodosio lamented that aside from the delay in the court ruling and the much lower amount granted to his clients, government inaction had contributed to the “impunity” of shipping companies found liable in maritime disasters.
“These shipping companies always emerged virtually unpunished or if punished, they were simply given a slap on the wrist. But average Filipinos always end up the sorrowful victims because of the negligence of the shipping companies and the failure of government (agencies) to do their jobs,” he said.
Among the pieces of evidence the lawyer presented in the case was a 26-page joint resolution of an investigation panel composed of the Department of Transportation and Communications, Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) and the Philippine Coast Guard.
The resolution, issued on April 24, 2001, stated that MV Asia South Korea sank “as a result of erroneous and negligent navigation in adverse weather and sea conditions.”
It said the vessel was “unseaworthy as a common carrier at the time of departure” because it was “overloaded with at least 97 excess passengers.” MV Asia South Korea was authorized to carry 660 people (614 passengers and 46 crew members) and it had insisted that it was not overloaded.
The probe panel belied the claim of Trans-Asia, citing casualty reports which showed that 58 people had died and 699 others were rescued or a total of 757 people who were on the vessel.
“The officers and crew of MV Asia South Korea were directly responsible for the overloading of passengers.” They were not only aware of this fact but also abetted and even led excess or unticketed passengers to the vessel’s cargo compartments to hide,” according to its findings.
The panel cited testimonies of passengers, who said they were among those who boarded without tickets and hidden by a purser at the cargo section during inspection.
It recommended the filing of criminal charges against ship captain Labagday, and chief mate Flores, for violation of Article 365 of the Revised Penal Code (Imprudence and Negligence), as well as the revocation of the Seafarers Identification and Record Book (SIRB) of the two officers, second mate Roel Rossell and purser Gregorio Caballero.
It endorsed administrative proceedings against Trans-Asia for overloading and violation of terms and conditions of certificate of public convenience and breach of franchise.
For still unexplained reasons, Marina took more than five years to act on the panel’s recommendations. Teodosio said he had to write to senators seeking assistance on why Marina had not issued an order based on the joint panel resolution.
In a decision issued on July 4, 2006, then Marina Administrator Vicente Suazo Jr. directed the revocation of the SIRB of the four ship officers and crew and imposed a P52,768 penalty against Trans-Asia for the 97 excess passengers.
But 13 years after the sinking, the administrative sanctions and criminal charges have not been implemented, according to lawyers of the victims and the shipping company.
Viñan said the firm had questioned Suazo’s decision because it had not received a copy of the resolution.
Its appeal has not been resolved by Marina, he said. “As far as we are concerned, (Suazo’s decision) did not attain finality because there was no resolution on our appeal.”
Teodosio cited a letter dated April 10, 2006 from then Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño to the office of then Sen. Manuel Roxas II stating that the Department of Justice was unaware of any resolution issued by a joint panel investigating the sinking of MV Asia South Korea.
Sought for comment, lawyer Virgilio Calag, chief of Marina’s legal office, said he would still review office records on the case.