Police have filed murder charges against the owner and crew of a passenger ferry that capsized and left 59 dead in Ormoc City in Southern Leyte, an official said Saturday.
The charges were filed late on Friday over the sinking of the M/B Kim Nirvana ship, according to regional police head, Chief Supt. Asher Dolina.
An initial police investigation and interviews with survivors showed the vessel abruptly turned in waters off the central port of Ormoc on Thursday, causing it to capsize, Dolina said.
“They were not careful, showing there was an intent to kill. They were reckless on purpose,” Dolina said.
A total of 19 people were charged, including ferry operator Jorge Bong Zarco, captain Warren Oliviero, and 17 crew members, according to Dolina. All are in police custody.
Under Philippine law, murder is punishable by up to 40 years imprisonment.
The police investigation is separate from a coast guard inquiry, which will primarily determine the cause of the mishap.
However, the coast guard may also recommend criminal and administrative charges.
“We filed the charges as soon as we could because we don’t want the suspects to leave the country,” Dolina said.
Zarco was weeping as he met his lawyer at the police station where he and Olivierio were detained.
Zarco laments that his detention would make it difficult for him to help the victims now that he is in jail.
“OK lang naman yun, sir. Pero hindi na ako makaka-extend ng tulong dahil nandito ako sa loob (I’m fine with that but now that I’m in jail, I could no longer extend help),” he said.
“Wala naman akong option, hindi ko rin naman ito tatakbuhan Wala akong magagawa dahil puwede rin naman akong tumira dito, hindi ako tatalikod sa obligasyon (I don’t have any option and I’m not running away from my obligation but I’m now helpless), “ Zarco told the Manila Times.
Lawyer Gwen Santiago said Zarco and the crewmen did not have any intention to kill the passengers, thus, murder charges would not be applicable.
Oliviero refused to make any comment as he was shaken after learning about the charges filed against him. The other crewmembers were also baffled with the charge.
“Kinsa bay motuyo ug lunod sa banca oi (Who would dare make the boat capsize deliberately)?” a crewman said in Bisayan.
Overloading of cargo and passengers might have been to blame for the disaster, according to Ormoc City Councilor Pedro Godiardo Ebcas, who helped oversee rescue operations.
Survivors reported seeing up to 150 sacks of cement and more of rice and fertilizer in the ship’s cargo area before it capsized in relatively calm seas, he said.
Bloated bodies spilled out of the Kim Nirvana’s wooden hull as a crane lifted it from the water and placed it on Ormoc port, Ebcas added.
The city councilor said the death toll stood at 59 with 142 survivors. His toll was higher than the 45 reported by the coast guard, which was based on the ship’s passenger list, though the guard counted the same number of survivors.
The coast guard earlier said the 33-ton ship could carry 194 people including 178 passengers and 16 crew, but according to the casualty count of the city council, the ship was carrying at least 198.
“The ship might not be too overloaded in terms of passengers, but imagine the weight of its cargo,” Ebcas said.
Each sack of rice, cement and fertiliser weighs 50 kilos and 150 sacks would easily add 7,500 kilos to the ship’s load, excluding passengers, he said.
Passengers on the ferry’s regular route from Ormoc to the Camotes Island in Cebu regularly bring supplies from the city to their remote fishing villages.
Ebcas, who chairs the Ormoc City Council committee on public safety, said the operation has shifted from search and rescue to search and retrieval.
He said the total number casualties has reached 59 with the number of survivors pegged at 142.
Three more bodies were found early morning Saturday in waters off Barangay Punta.
Ebcas said they are bothered with the increasing number of casualties as it has already surpassed the number of listed in the boat’s passenger manifest as reported by the coast guard.
He said the numbers in the manifest could not be used as a bench mark because the number of survivors and casualties exceeds the number reported.
“Hopefully not because we don’t want to more casualties to be found.”
Ebcas said the city government’s figures are based on the actual count made by the City Health Department.
Pilar (Cebu) Mayor Jesus Fernandez Jr. and Ormoc City Administrator Francis Pepito are coordinating with each other in facilitating the repatriation of the dead bodies.
Search operations with rescue divers were stopped on Friday before the ship was lifted to port’s berthing area.
The United Filipino Seafarers (UFS) said investigators should not concentrate simply on human error as it also called on both the Senate and the House of Representatives to call for a congressional inquiry into the incident.
Nelson Ramirez, president of the UFS, said Congress should handle the investigation and not the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina).
He said the coast guard either allowed the ship to sail despite the number of people on board as some inspectors may have been bribed or were not informed of the actual number of people on board the ferry.
Coast Guard spokesman, Cmdr. Armand Balilo earlier said they are looking at human error as the cause of the accident.
With FRANCIS EARL A. CUETO and AFP