The final voyage

Two years after one of the Philippines' worst ferry disasters, those who have received the bodies of their loves ones are the more fortune ones.


    The bright pink frilly dress was lovingly laid out on the cold hard metal slab.

    On the floor next to it - a long white coffin. Oversized for the three-year-old that was finally going to be put in it.

    Levi Samuel had been waiting for this moment for exactly two years.

    Well, "waiting" implies hopeful expectation, so it wouldn't really be the right word.

    Levi hadn't wanted to say goodbye.

    His niece and her father were among the over 800 passengers on board the 23,000 tonne MV Princess of the Stars when it sank in stormy weather off the central Philippines in June 2008.

    It was one of the worst sea disasters in the Philippines.

    The remains were only now turned over to Levi by authorities. And he is one of the more fortunate ones. At last, at least, he has something to bury.

    Some 500 other victims have yet to be accounted for. 

    Residents 'on edge'

    Government officials have declared the underwater retrieval over.

    After the largest, longest and most costly salvaging operations in the country's maritime history, the coast guard has said there's nothing left to find in the sunken vessel.

    The next step, raising the wreckage and moving it away.

    All well and good for the island closest to the watery mass grave. Residents there have been on edge ever since the tragedy occurred.

    "Her name was Jacqueline Rhoz Padua," Levi says with a sad, sad smile.

    "Please make sure you spell it right. It's Rhoz with an "h" and a "z."

    In the uniqueness of her name rode her family's hopes for her future.

    She was still too young to have any coherent dreams of her own.

    I threw up when I first saw her. It was terrible.  She was just a mess of bones and flesh ... and she didn’t have her head.  They never found it ..."

    Levi’s voice cracked then, and his tears began to flow at the memory.

    "They let me wash her bones ... I had her in my hands ... I was holding her bones … I used to carry her whole body ... now all I have are bones ..."

    Levi buried his face in his hands.


    Some 100 bodies were put in small wooden crates by the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) to be eventually returned to grieving loved ones. 

    But this move by the PAO - an agency of the justice department - is being questioned by other government agencies who insist the PAO is acting beyond its jurisdiction. 

    Persida Acosta, the PAO chief, believes otherwise.

    She says they had to spearhead their own retrieval operations because if they didn't act, nothing would've moved forward.

    That everyone else was only concerned about money, and not thinking about those that suffered most from the tragedy.

    Investigations into the incident have also been anything but clear cut.

    There have been complaints of a lack of transparency.

    Officials 'tight-lipped'

    Sulpicio Lines, the owner of the Princess of the Stars, has remained mostly tight-lipped.

    It is one of the largest shipping companies in the country, and it also has the poorest safety record.

    Although facing both administrative and criminal charges, it has been allowed to resume operations of its other passenger vessels after these were initially suspended after the tragedy.

    Sulpicio has also recently been allowed to legally change its name, leaving many fearful that the company is distancing itself from its tragic legacy, and could escape any liability for the most recent disaster.

    Tom Lantion, the department of transport’s maritime undersecretary, says the fears are baseless.

    He only asks for patience as "the wheels of justice really work slowly" in the Philippines.

    But he admits that rarely has there been any proper accountability for such maritime accidents. And they are not uncommon here.

    In the last two years alone, there have been over 500.

    Too many of the seafaring vessels are poorly maintained, or just simply too old.

    Desperate industry

    The whole industry is in desperate need of modernisation, and the implementing maritime rules already in existence has not been easy for the beleaguered Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

    Ill-equipped and undermanned for this archipelago of over 7,000 islands.

    The PCG only has some 5,000 men and only 20 "credible" vessels at its disposal.  

    Nowhere near enough when 60 per cent of the country’s villages are coastal.

    At the end of the day, it does come down to money - or a lack thereof.

    And none of that is any consolation to Levi.

    He takes a ziplock bag out of a wooden crate and begins to carefully bring out its contents.

    One by one, small bones are put atop a bright pink frilly dress now within a too-large white coffin.

    I had the dress made especially, and some extra material prepared to go where her head should have been"

    One by one the bones go into their final resting place.

    Uncle Levi’s final touch: a delicate rhinestone tiara.

    "She will always be our princess," he said.



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