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Sulpicio sues weather forecaster over sunken ferry

Sulpicio sues weather forecaster over sunken ferry

Manila: Sulpicio Lines on Monday filed a civil case against the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) and two of its officials for "gross negligence and incompetence" in forecasting the path of typhoon Frank (international codename, Fengshen), which it blamed for the sinking of its ship M/V Princess of the Stars and the subsequent loss of more than 800 lives.

In the civil case, the PAGASA, as an agency, as well as its director Prisco Nilo and chief weather forecaster Nathaniel Cruz, are being sued for "gross negligence and incompetence" in forecasting the weather, particularly the projected path of the typhoon from June 20 to June 21.

Sulpicio Lines lawyer Arthur Lim said the agency first announced on the evening of June 20 that the storm was moving northwest, but at 5 a.m. of June 21 the agency announced the storm had moved westward.

In effect, Sulpicio Lines said that due to faulty weather forecasting by the national weather bureau, the ship's captain directed the ferry towards the typhoon path.

"The point is... at the time they made the wrong forecast, PAGASA knew the actual movement of the typhoon westward, but still anounced it and broacast it as northwest, thereby deceiving the captain who plotted his own course going down south to Cebu," Lim told ANC's Top Storynewscast Monday.

"PAGASA caused the vessel to sail into the jaws of death," he added.

The company is seeking moral damages of P2.5 million, while the Go family, which owns the shipping company, is asking for P500,000 moral damages. They are also asking for a public apology from the agency.

As of 5:40 p.m. Monday, PAGASA has yet to issue a statement regarding the case.

On Friday, Sulpicio Lines port captain Nestor Ponteres told the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) that the sinking of the ferry was due to PAGASA's wrong forecast of typhoon Frank.

Ponteres quoted the MV Princess of the Stars Capt. Florencio Marimon as having said, "Crazy PAGASA, what happened to their forecast?"

Ponteres also told the board of marine inquiry Marimon decided to leave Manila for Cebu Friday since PAGASA's weather forecast showed that the ship's path would not enter an area that would be under the strong typhoon signal number 3. Ships are not allowed to sail under signal number 2 and 3.

On Saturday, Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Undersecretary Graciano Yumul Jr. said PAGASA's mandate is simply to inform the general public on forecasts that may help prevent natural calamities.

"Our mandate is only as a warning agency. When there is a change in direction of a typhoon, it's our duty to inform the general public," Yumul said. "How others use our forecast, we cannot control."

The PAGASA is an agency under the DOST.

Yumul said the PAGASA will be able to present documents before the board of marine inquiry that would show that the weather bureau issued a signal 3 typhoon warning which should have alerted Sulpicio Lines to stop their ships bound for Cebu from Manila.

Dr. Prisco Nilo, director of PAGASA, said Saturday that based on PAGASA's June 20, 11 am bulletin, Masbate was already under signal number 3.

MV Princess of the Stars left Manila June 20 at 8 pm with more than 800 passengers and crew, and it would have had to cross Masbate June 21.

Yumul said other ships bound for the Visayas also left the port of Manila June 20, but they all took shelter in Batangas province after they learned they would cross areas under typhoon signal numbers 2 and 3.

Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo, commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard, said Saturday some other ships no longer left Manila on June 20 since they knew the consequences given the bulletins issued by PAGASA.

Yumul said the PAGASA sends out its weather bulletins to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), which then distributes the information to other users down the line such as the Philippine Coast Guard.

"As a matter of fact, it is Sulpicio [Lines] who should make sure they have the latest bulletin from Coast Guard," he said.

Yumul said PAGASA can also present documents that would show that its weather forecast of typhoon Frank was the same as the meteorological agencies of Japan, US, Hong Kong, and Australia.

He said PAGASA also held two press conferences on June 20 and another one on June 21 to inform the public about the change in the typhoon's direction.

Tamayo said it was the call of the captain of MV Princess of the Stars whether to continue sailing. Based on current regulations of the industry, he said a ship's captain has the discretion to sail or not only if the signal is number one and the ship is above 1,000 gross tons. MV Princess of the Stars' gross tonnage is 23,000.

"MV Princess of the Stars was the only ship that was brave enough to sail. Others took shelter. So I think this is purely a captain's call," Tamayo said. [1/7/08]