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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tioman ferry tragedy, and the Zen of Maritime Safety

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No doubt about it, the marine incident that claimed the lives of four people last Saturday, October 13th, is tragic. As of today, 3 people are still missing. Frankly, Walski doesn't put much hope in the prospects of finding them still alive - this may sound callous, but let's be realistic about it, shall we?

Image hosting by PhotobucketTaken from The Star's report of the tragedy

Being someone whose work involves industrial safety, among other things, Walski acknowldeges the fact that accidents do happen. It's not possible to totally eradicate accidents. Best industry practice, when it comes to safety, though, dictates that while you cannot totally reduce the possibility of accidents to zero, there is something in the industry called "acceptable risk" levels.

In fact, when it comes to any sort of safety considerations, the objective is to reduce the risk of injury, death and damage to the environment to an acceptable level. In the case of the tragedy off Tioman, containing the fire to the engine room by utilizing automatic fire detection and suppression systems in place, having sufficient life jackets for the allowable number of passengers, and a crew trained in emergency response, would have been reasonable measures to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. The fire would still have happened (it was supposedly due to a short circuit), but the damage caused would probably not have been as extensive, and perhaps even the loss of life avoided.

So, what is the level of acceptable risk that the ferry operator Seagull Express and Accommodation Sdn Bhd tolerated in operating their service between Mersing and Tioman Island?

Eyewitness accounts, plus what was reported by Bernama, via Malaysiakini, have revealed a few interesting facts (emphasis by myAsylum):
"... and police said they were still trying to determine the exact number on board"
"Survivors accused the crew of abandoning them when the passenger cabin filled with thick, black smoke, and giving no help to the elderly and children on board."
"... that the fire spread fast and within minutes thick smoke filled the passenger cabin, forcing them to take their chances in the sea without lifejackets."
"A Marine Department official told Bernama the ferry's permit to transport passengers had expired in December last year and not been renewed." (Actually, more like two and a half years ago!! See the full post.)
"Another passenger, Sybil Lucas, 30, said the ferry was old and no longer suitable to transport passengers."

Incidentally, part of Walski's responsibility at work is being his department's HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) representative, and so he is qualified to comment in this case. And you know what Walski thinks?
(findings based on the news reports, and more, in the full post)

Image from The Star, hosting by PhotobucketWhat surprises Walski the most about all this is how the fuck could the vessel be in operation if its license had expired? Actually, this only confirms Walski's worst fears - that our civil maritime standards are either sub-par, or that the level of enforcement is next to zero. Between the two, Walski more likely thinks that it is the latter - and if that's the case, it's just par for the course when it comes to enforcement of exising laws and regulations. We have lots, but don't enforce 'em worth a damn.

As with many instances in the past, it takes a bloody tragedy like this before anyone takes notice. And that is perhaps what makes Walski fuming mad.

In this instance, the operating company, if found to be negligent, should be taken to task - to the fullest extent of what the law allows. And in fact, if it does operate other vessels, Seagull Express and Accommodation Sdn Bhd should have all their ferry services suspended, pending re-certification of their vessels. If the company has a single fiber of moral responsibility to the public at all, it should do so without having being asked to.

Reading thru some of the other news reports, Walski found the response from the authorities to be almost comical. On Monday, The Star carried a follow-up report on the incident (emphasis by myAsylum).

OCPD Deputy Supt Abdullah Sani Salat said police were only concentrating on the cause of the fire on board the ferry in their investigations, as the Marine Department is the proper authority conducting a thorough probe on the matter.

“We will help in the efforts to retrieve the wreckage of the ferry that is submerged in the sea. Efforts to look for the three missing passengers are still on going.

“Our main investigations will focus on whether there was any foul play involved in the death of the four passengers,” he said.

(source: The Star)

Umm... barking up the wrong lamp post again, PDRM? They should probably just allow the Marine Department to investigate, and not make unnecessary (and somewhat silly) statements. But should the Maritime Department even be allowed to conduct investigations on their own? More to come on this later in the post.

The four who perished were elderly (between 52 to 68 years of age), and from what Walski's read, unable to swim. Walski also understands that at least one body was recovered in an extremely burnt state, indicating that the victim was overcome by smoke and probably didn't even make it out of the ferry.

Anyone that's been through basic Sea Survival will tell you that threading water (even in sea water) is something that even the fittest amongst us will find difficult to do for extended periods of time. Hence, the need for life jackets and other flotation assistance devices.

But Walski digresses... he is simply pissed off that this tragic incident happened... the focus of this post is on the safety and safety regulation aspects.

In Walski's view, the operator of the ferry service, Seagull Express and Accommodation Sdn Bhd, should indeed be found guilty of negligence. But not just them - probably the Marine Department as well. And here are his reasons for thinking so:

1. The fire and ensuing smoke spread rapidly - indicating that there was no automatic fire detection and suppression system in the engine room area. The vessel is not that old (The Star reports that it was constructed in 1991). Walski would also be curious to know if there were operational hand-operated fire extinguishers on the vessel or not. Walski happens to know that there should be fire suppression and detection systems (more on this later in the post).

2. The crew allegedly abandoned ship to save their own asses - indicating to Walski that the crew was not trained to handle emergency situations, if this were the case. For a crew on such a vessel, this is a definitely no-no. Again, how could the Maritime Department allow for this?

3. The vessel's licenses had expired - The Star reported that "A Marine Department spokesman said the licence for the Seagull Express had expired on March 16 last year, while its passenger certificate had an expiry date of March 18, 2005". The first question that came to Walski's mind upon reading this - what checks do the Marine Department conduct to ensure that passenger vessels are sea-worthy? And which statutory body issues the so-called "Passenger Certificate"? How on earth could a vessel be allowed to operate for 19 months without a license - the biggest joke here is that this information came from the Marine Department itself. What the fuck were they doing about it for the last year and a half??

4. Passengers had to ditch the burning vessel without a life jacket - Where there sufficient life jackets to cater for all the passengers and crew? If there were sufficient life jackets, were the passengers aware of where these were stowed, either via signages or verbal briefing from the crew? Okay... scratch that last part - Walski's been on one of these ferries (not to Tioman, but elsewhere), and no, the passengers are not told where the life jackets are located. Blogger Shanghai Stephen has his own horror story about ferries and lifejackets that you can (and should) check out. In his post commenting on this tragedy, he's labelled the tragic fire as a tragedy waiting to happen (in not so many words). The question here is, are Malaysian civil Maritime regulations at par with international standards, and are they diligently enforced? Particularly when it comes to crew and passenger safety.

In conclusion, on the part of the operator, Walski is of the opinion that they did not reduce the risks to an acceptable level. And by that, Walski means a level that complies with international maritime safety best practices, and not what Seagull Express and Accommodation Sdn Bhd thinks acceptable levels are. Like with many business in this country that deal with passenger carriage, their concern is probably more on making money. Fortunately, air travel is subject to stringent international standards in order to operate. Probably not so true with road and sea public transport.

Secondly, the role of the Maritime Department in ensuring that passenger vessels in this country are safe. If the Tioman ferry tragedy is any measure, it would appear that the Malaysia Maritime Department is either enept, or have not kept up with international safety standards. Worse, if someone paid them off to "close one eye".

Come to think of it, perhaps the Maritime Department should not be tasked to do the investigations alone, since there is a good possibility that they, too, are party to negligence.

On Sunday, Malaysiakini reported that "Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak said an investigation would be conducted to determine the cause of the fire, whether the operator had followed safety standards and whether the crew had done its best to save passengers."

Yes, Walski would definitely be interested to find out the outcome of this investigation. But what the DPM did not mention is this - are our Maritime safety standards up to snuff in the first place? And it also goes back to the perennial problem of enforcement. What are we going to do about enforcement, Najib?

To Najib's credit, however, the stated purpose of the investigation at least makes reasonable sense. The PM, as usual, was elegantly silent, and was more saddened by his inability to wish our astronaut Selamat Hari (Angkasa) Raya. Sigh...

Now comes the really interesting part, and this pretty much makes it mandatory that a thorough investigation be done. And if heads need to roll, heads need to roll. Let's hope that Najib's word given on this is his bond - because nothing less than Malaysia's reputation in the maritime community is at stake.

Malaysia happens to be a signatory to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974, otherwise known in the maritime industry as SOLAS. The convention was adopted on November 1st, 1974, and came into effect May 25th, 1980.

Not only is Malaysia a signatory, but we actually have ratified the convention, which means that there are laws legislated to take into account the regulations, resolutions and protocols contained within SOLAS. In other words, any party contravening SOLAS contravenes Malaysian law.

Chapter II-2 - Fire protection, fire detection and fire extinction of SOLAS "... includes detailed fire safety provisions for all ships and specific measures for passenger ships, cargo ships and tankers". This portion of SOLAS has been updated a few times over the years, but having ratified it, Malaysia is obligated to keep up with the requirements as and when they change.

So, there are international standards that are in place, and by Malaysian Maritime Law, are required to be followed. The question now is, in the case of the Seagull Express 2, how could have the operating company gotten away with not having the vessel properly licensed? If there were any fouls that got played, this would be one.

In the meantime, some of the survivors of the disaster have indicated that they will sue, as reported by Malaysiakini earlier this evening.

Three couples who survived the last Saturday’s ferry tragedy in Tioman are considering legal action against the ferry operator as well as the government for alleged negligence, after two relatives drowned.

At a press conference today, the couples insisted on compensation from the Transport Ministry, Johor government, Marine Department, a local tour agency and the ferry operator - Seagull Express and Accommodation Sdn Bhd.

“We want (Transport Minister) Chan Kong Choy to compensate us for allowing such a tragedy to occur,” Ng Soon Tiong, 41, and a father of three, told reporters at the DAP headquarters in Petaling Jaya today.

(source: Malaysiakini - subscription required)

And so we now wait for the outcome not only of the investigations, but also of the pending lawsuit. Although Walski doesn't have a crystal ball, and he's not a clairvoyant, he can forsee that a lot of blamestorming and pushing of responsibility is going to happen. For starters, BN is probably going to say that the DAP is opportunistic in taking up the cause of the victims. Then the statutory bodies are going to go at each others' throats...

But in the end, there's no escaping SOLAS, and the commitments already made by Malaysia in ensuring the convention is followed. We've ratified it, and therefore are obligated to enforce it. The biggest problem here is that the Maritime Department, the very ones whose responsibility it is to ensure the regulations are enforced, could very well be a prominent party in at fault.

As far as this tragedy is concerned, the days ahead are definitely going to be interesting ones...

Walski's footnote of condolence: myAsylum wishes to extend our deepest heartfelt condolences to the familiies and friends of those who perished in the tragedy. Let's hope something really positive will come out of the ensuing investigations (one can still hope), so that no such tragedies will happen, ever again, in the future.