POSTSCRIPT / April 4, 2004 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Hidden report on ferry fire rules out terrorism

WHIPPING UP HYSTERIA: The alacrity with which the authorities have been injecting terrorism into every discussion on national security prompts us to ask if they are not deliberately whipping up terrorism hysteria.

For what purpose would anybody attempt to condition the nation to slide into a terrorism mode? Ask the politicians apparently manipulating the military-police handling of the situation in the capital and other populous areas.

Civil rights advocates and the more sober sectors of the community must look deeper into the spate of arrests of supposed terrorists who look, to us, amateurish carrying those crude devices and incriminating plots and diagrams.

The military and the police may also want to check if they are not being used by their political bosses.

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SUPERFERRY FIRE: The burning and sinking last Feb. 27 of the 10,192-ton (gross) mv Superferry 14 near Corregidor is another curious incident being linked to terrorism, rather crudely we dare say.

About two days after the incident, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo spoke up to nip alarmist talk that the fire was caused by an explosion described as the handiwork of terrorists.

The President said emphatically (probably because she knew the score) that there was no terrorist bomb involved. But other forces at work insisted on the terrorist angle. Why?

The more we were intrigued when the official investigation report of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) that ruled out any terrorist hand in the fire disappeared.

We were able to get last week a copy of the missing Marina investigation report. It was prepared and signed by Arnie F. Santiago, MSc, MSA, chief of complaints & investigation, and head of the investigation team.

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TRAPPED GASES: Superferry 14 left Manila’s North Harbor at 11 p.m. last Feb. 26 with the manifest showing 702 passengers (later the number was raised) and 155 crewmen. The ferry was allowed to carry 1,747 persons. The vessel master was Capt. Ceferino L. Manzo.

At around 12:50 a.m., Feb. 27, while the ship was in the vicinity of El Fraile near Corregidor, fire broke out, cutting short the 22-year-old vessel’s voyage to Bacolod and Cagayan de Oro.

While reports released to media said an explosion from a device planted by a terrorist caused the fire, the official Marina investigation report said exactly the opposite: that fire in a room crammed with paint spread and triggered an explosion of trapped superheated gases.

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REPORT EXCERPTS: Pardon the English, but what the Marina report says is more important than the grammar. Here are excerpts (slightly edited) of the concluding portions of the 19-page report dated March 2, 2004:

“The fire occurred in the paint storage beside the fan room at the funnel port side prior to the explosion. The heated fan room caused the transmission of heat to other sidewall through convection, causing fire in another paint storage room.

“The bar and electrical panel located at the lower portion of the paint room and fan room was affected. When the accumulated hot vapors generated by the heat reached ignition temperature, the hot gases caused an explosion and heavy fire occurred.

“The explosion that was heard by passengers was a result of the hot vapors between the ceiling and the weather deck that gave off and immediately exploded and resulted to fire.

“Due to impact of explosions, the ceilings of the red section was detached and fell on the lower deck, causing the breaking of the glass door of the orange section.

“Traces of paint indicate that fire occurred in the weather deck prior to the explosion at the bar counter and electrical panel portion at the promenade deck.

“The crew fighting the fire used fire hoses that caused paint to spill on the deck, instead of applying CO2 (carbon dioxide) or dry chemical for type-B fire (paint).

“There was no bomb or explosive materials within the area of the explosion.”

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PINAYS KICKED OUT: Calling the attention of women rights advocates and others concerned about how we (mis)treat Filipinos laboring abroad to bring in the dollars propping up the fragile economy.

Read this report about Filipinas who fled Kuwait pellmell across the desert into Amman, Jordan, after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of its neighbor to the south.

In his book (2003) “The Wars Against Saddam,” BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson reported in Chapter 29 titled “The Abandoned”:

BACK in Amman, my colleagues and I went out to celebrate the fact that we had completed our tour of duty safely, and had hopes of returning to Baghdad after a short spell at home. We were walking back to our hotel after a good meal and wine that tasted sensational after so many weeks of shortage, when a crowded bus drew up beside us. It was filthy, and covered with the dust of a long trip across the desert.

Such buses were coming in all the time from Kuwait and Baghdad, bringing former hostages who had been allowed to leave. If they were Europeans, there was always a gang of photographers and cameramen hanging round to capture the moment when they arrived in the freedom of Jordan. There would be plenty of reporters to ask them questions and hope to elicit stories which would allow them if they worked for the British tabloids to use words like “fiends” and “evil butchers” about the Iraqis.

There were no journalists or cameramen waiting for this bus. There seemed to be as many people standing up as sitting down inside it, and the driver started pushing and kicking them out onto the pavement. They sat there among the cardboard boxes and bundles tied up in headscarves. The children with them began to cry. Some of the mothers looked no older than 16 or 17 themselves, and just as much in need of comfort.

“Where are you from?” I asked one of the older women.

“Please,” she answered, looking nervously up at me, “we are from Philippines.”

The bus had brought them all the way from Kuwait. The journey had taken more than 30 hours and there had been very few rest-stops. They had only once been given food and water.

They were skinny and feeble, these women, and looked quite incapable of looking after themselves. Some had been locked up by their employers in the houses where they had worked as servants, until the Iraqi soldiers broke in and turned them loose. Many of them had apparently been raped.

Now there was nothing for them to do, nowhere for them to sleep, no food to eat and no water to drink. The reception center available for people like them was full to overflowing already, so the only place they could sleep was in the front garden. Their embassies had not sent anyone to help them or check their details. Virgin Airlines had volunteered in a blaze of publicity to fly home the British women and children from Kuwait free. No one had laid on a charter flight for these people. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had flown to Baghdad and Kuwait to get the American hostages out (his business manager had told us when we asked if we could haver seats on his plane, “We aren’t into chequebook journalism, but that’ll be $100,000!”), wouldn’t be coming to rescue them. The British tablolids weren’t polishing up their adjectives to describe what they had gone through.

The 50 or 60 Filipinas sat despondently in the warm darkness, quiet now except for the occasional whimpering of a tired child. My colleagues and I hung around awkwardly for a while. The one thing we could do to help them was to fetch our camera from the hotel and film them, in the hope that some foreign government might feel obliged to intervene. As we went off to get the equipment I looked back. They were still watching us, but no one complained that we seemed to be deserting them. Life had taught them that there was no point in complaining, and no one to complain to anyway.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 4, 2004)

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