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Opinion: Who’s responsible for the sinking of ‘Phoenix’?

Tim Newton

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Opinion: Who’s responsible for the sinking of ‘Phoenix’? | The Thaiger
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A year later, this hastily penned opinion piece still asks questions that remain mostly unanswered…

Who’s responsible for the ‘Phoenix’ boat disaster, the worst maritime disaster in Thailand since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004?

Whilst events of the fateful evening on July 5 remain under investigation, awaiting a full court hearing down the track, there are some things which are very easy to pinpoint along the faltering chain of command.

In Greek mythology the ‘Phoenix’ rose from the ashes. In this case the ‘Phoenix’ boat faltered and sank like a stone.

On the night of July 5, from anecdotal evidence of passengers who survived the boat’s sinking and videos taken at the time, it appears that there were many passengers still in the lower decks of the boat, some of them in compartments from which they never escaped. Many weren’t wearing any sort of bouncy aid at the time, let alone a proper fit-for-purpose life jacket. Many others, as can be seen in the videos, were wearing simple ’bouyancy aids’.

The Thai captain and crew of the vessel escaped on the boat’s two life rafts, unharmed, leaving many people still downstairs as the boat began to sink.

From the videos we’ve seen it was chaos and panic – most, if not all, of the Chinese passengers could hardly swim, let alone survive in the rough seas many of them fell into.

Disturbingly, there were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents. If they were wearing proper life jackets they, along with their parents, would have had a much higher chance of survival.

The tour boats that ply Phuket’s waters, to the islands and around Phang Nga Bay, usually require their guests to wear basic buoyancy aids. These have floatation around the vest giving, as the name suggests, a basic aid to the floatation of the wearer – an aid for swimming, not much else. They are quite different from a life jacket that has almost all its floating capacity supporting the neck and in the front of the wearer. This forces the wearer onto their back and keeps the head above the water.

A fully-inflated life jacket can be quite cumbersome when walking around a boat so most of the newer versions, like on planes, automatically inflate when you hit the water, have a rip chord to inflate manually or can be simply blown up or ‘topped up’ with a tube. They also have a whistle attached to attract attention, something none of the vests, worn by passengers on ‘Phoenix’, had.

The basic rule, while at sea, is that the captain is in charge. If he or she says put your life jackets on, you do. They are in control of the vessel. The captain of ‘Phoenix’, currently in custody (along with the Thai ‘owner’ of the vessel), claims that the waves were 4-5 metres high. Even if that emerges to be an exaggeration, as some claim, the boat was of a length (29 metres) and size that should be able to cope with those conditions.

Seafarers know that, in most storms, you would continue head to wind, straight towards the waves, at a low speed – uncomfortable for passengers but totally survivable by a boat the size of ‘Phoenix’. That’s assuming that the design was such that it had sufficient weight low-down and wasn’t top-heavy, making the design more inclined to capsize. The courts will decide on that fact when the full evidence is presented to the presiding judge.

But the events on the actual day appear to be the thin end of the wedge with a litany of systemic negligence leading up to July 5.

Who ticked off on the design of ‘Phoenix’ – that the boat would be suitable for carrying up to 100 passengers and crew, safely? Who checked the construction of the boat as it was being built, and then when it was completed and launched to ensure that all the requirements of the engine, construction, engineering, equipment and safety equipment were met? Who was responsible for the qualifications of the Captain and crew and their fitness to handle a vessel of this size with up to 100 passengers? What safety training did the crew receive to handle an emergency? And who ticked off on their certification of ‘Phoenix’ – the final paperwork allowing to operate at sea as a tour boat?

For the company that owned ‘Phoenix’ – allegedly a Thai shelf company with a Thai nominee holding the majority shares but actually being controlled by Chinese citizens – who was checking the bonfides of the company structure? There’s little use accusing the Chinese money trail behind the company when there are laws in place preventing this type of thing from happening. Which accountant signed off on these company documents?

And who decided that the vessel should go to sea on that day when warnings had been issued? Or at least seen the storm approaching on their radars and sought shelter (as many other boats did on the day).

As the yacht was constructed in Phuket, the answer to all these questions is Thai officials and professionals – officials that were allegedly qualified and authorised to tick off on all these standard compliances. Apart from the head of the local Marine Department being ‘side-lined’ pending further enquiry, we haven’t yet heard much about the designer, the engineers, the safety inspectors or training regimens of the tour boat crew. Or who missed the company documents.

And then, sitting above these people, with the final responsiblity, is the island’s Governor.

Phuket Governor (at the time) Noraphat Plodthong has fronted most of the media briefings where the latest bad news in the boat tragedy has been presented to the local media. He’s also been the face of Phuket with the sad task of having to meet with survivors and relatives and listen to the concerns from the Chinese Ambassador to Thailand.

The Thaiger’s main reporter says that very few questions were asked by journalists at those media presentations, beyond the current situation and the rising numbers of dead Chinese found floating around the Andaman Sea. But questions as to people’s responsibility in the sinking were rarely raised.

Whilst the blame game will continue, and Phuket’s Provincial Court eventually convenes to hear all the evidence, it is quite apparent that it is a long, long period of non-compliance to standing maritime laws, blind-eyes being turned (for reasons we hope emerge in the hearings), correct procedures not being put in place and a somewhat ‘sabai sabai’ attitude to the entire issue of marine safety beyond a few media releases and photo opportunities.

Finally, there’s the role of the media in all this. When tragedies have occurred in the past the media seem more interested in getting a photo of the line-up of dignitaries than following up the nitty-gritty of the incident. The investigative reporting that may may reveal some of the systemic failures, and courageous owners who would publish these stories, never happened.

For the foreign media in Phuket this is a complicated issue as we’re ‘guests’ working here and are generally told not to ’step on toes’ in our reporting of local news lest we find problems arising in our Work Permits or Applications for visas. And, in some cases, those who have risen to the challenge and published damaging news about Thai ofiicials, are now no longer working in their capacity as publishers of news in Thailand.

The full investigation is yet to wrap up but some of the key people are now in custody, insurance companies are making payments and the Chinese families have either buried the 47 passengers that died or repatriated their bodies for arrangements back in China.

If not for the huge amount of attention on the Tham Luang cave story in Chang Rai, by any standards, the sinking of the ‘Phoenix’ and the deaths, including 13 children, of 47 Chinese citizens should have made lead-story headlines. It didn’t, except in local media. In some ways Phuket dodged a media bullet.

The fallout of this tragedy – in terms of Chinese tourism to the island and the findings of court cases in relation to this matter – will be more apparent in time. But if just a few of the many, many mistakes that were made along the way could have been prevented there is a strong chance the 47 tourists would still be alive.

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Read more headlines, reports & breaking news in Phuket. Or catch up on your Thailand news.

Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for nearly 40 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented 3,900 radio news bulletins in Thailand alone, hosted 450 daily TV news programs, produced 1,800 videos, TV commercials and documentaries and is now the General Manager and writer for The Thaiger. He's reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue.

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Air Pollution

Smoke and mirrors, northern Thailand’s annual smog problem

The Thaiger

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Smoke and mirrors, northern Thailand’s annual smog problem | The Thaiger

Congratulations Chiang Mai. Again you are the world’s Number One.

Sadly, you’re the number one in the world’s worst air pollution, again. The third time in this week alone. And, sadly, because the problem is almost completely avoidable, but not easily solved.

Chiang Mai city has a PM2.5 micron reading this morning of 282, whilst just north of the city in Nong Han they have the staggering reading of 380 (hazardous).

PM2. 5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair. Commonly written as PM2.5 particles in this category are so small that they can only be detected with an electron microscope.

Smoke and mirrors, northern Thailand's annual smog problem | News by The Thaiger

GRAPHIC: airvisual.com

Other heavily populated areas around Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Lampung are also suffering serious smog and smoke problems today. Last week the Royal Thai Army announced it would head to the northern provinces, track down and arrest plantation and farm owners who were allowing fires to be started on their properties. They would work with local rangers to detect the fires and enforce orders from the government not to light fires to clear land in preparation for new crops.

“The newly deployed rangers will be sent to fire-prone areas to patrol for fires and arrest anyone they find starting them. The rangers will also assist fire officers in fighting fires.”

Smoke and mirrors, northern Thailand's annual smog problem | News by The Thaiger

If anyone in the government or Royal Thai Army has access to a computer, internet or smartphone, they can download this interactive ‘live’ map which shows all the active fires in any region in the world, accurate to about 100 metres. Or if that’s too difficult they could could drive around the region and look for the smoke. HERE‘s the link to the live satellite imagery and a photo of what smoke looks like.

Smoke and mirrors, northern Thailand's annual smog problem | News by The Thaiger

But, even if the government is able to abate some of the local burning off of farmlands on their own soil, they have a more nuanced problem negotiating with the Myanmar, Laos and Cambodian governments to enforce the same limits on their farmers. The winds blow across the borders and, as the satellite images show, much of the smoke is floating across in the prevailing winds from fires in neighbouring countries.

Thailand could show the lead and be a regional facilitator in vital changes to agricultural practices which are causing human tragedy and enormous damage to the region’s tourist potential. ASEAN (where Vietnam is the Chair for 2020) has the regional ‘teeth’ to be able to bring these changes about and help arrange subsidies for farming districts to jointly share the costs of the harvesting and plowing machinery that would render the annual burn-off unnecessary.

Health effects

PM2.5 particulate are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath.

PM2.5 particulate primarily come from car, truck, bus and off-road vehicle, construction equipment, snowmobile, exhausts, and other operations that involve the burning of fuels such as wood, heating oil or coal and natural sources such as forest and grass fires.

Exposure to these fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. Long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. (NY Department of Health)

The Thai government rate the upper safe level of air pollution as 50. The World Health Organisation rate the upper level at half of that, only 25 mg per cubic metre. Either way, the smog and smoke levels in Thailand’s north are many, many times the acceptable safe levels for the region’s populations and is doing incalculable damage to northern Thailand’s future tourist potential.

Smoke and mirrors, northern Thailand's annual smog problem | News by The ThaigerPHOTO: Survivor Guide Chiang Mai

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Opinion

Major corporations join the fight against plastics

The Thaiger

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Major corporations join the fight against plastics | The Thaiger

by Ghislaine Bovy

Reduce. Re-use. Recycle.

The public is now fully aware of the gigantic plastic pollution issue. They know it’s time to act and act now. Many of us have already “gone” into using reusable plastic bags, refillable bottles and buy fruits and vegetables in bulk instead of in individual plastic bags, small shops don’t give you a plastic bag unless you ask and pay for it!, usually.

The public is playing an important role in the fight against single-use plastics but what about the major corporations? Are they doing their part?

Consumer product companies are now adopting ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ strategies and that’s what I call positive news.

There is also a business reason behind this trend – consumers are demanding more sustainable goods and services. People are now ready to buy goods and services at a higher price provided they are respectful of the environment.

Unilever for example has implemented its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan as early as 2010 and they have to keep their promise since consumers will hold them accountable. Their goal is to convert all packagings to be 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable and to cut by half the use of virgin plastic and collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells by 2025.

As an example of the corporation efforts, most of Unilever home care bottles use 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials.

Another consumer goods corporation, Nestlé is implementing a number of immediate actions in order to speed up the transformation of its products in line with consumer trends and choices.

Leading by example, Nestlé Indochina is now using paper secondary packaging and Nestlé worldwide is developing packagings that will reduce their environmental footprint by using climate-friendly ingredients and alternative packaging materials.

In the cosmetics industry, L’Oréal committed that by 2025, 50% of its products’ plastic components will be recycled or bio-sourced and 100% of its plastic packaging refillable, rechargeable, recyclable or compostable.

“Sustainability is a new licence to operate, and it’s the condition inherent to the company’s long-term success and to safeguarding our planet. It’s clear that corporate social responsibility is a strategic issue for L’Oréal.” said Ines Caldeira, chief executive of L’Oréal Thailand.

Food operators are also joining the fight. The Oishi Group, for example, implemented “recycle and reduce” programs such as switching the company’s gyoza and sushi packaging via delivery to paper boxes instead.

Hotel, Restaurant and Coffee chains are also making extensive efforts to reduce their single-use plastics usage.

The Phuket Hotels Association goes a step further than supporting the reduction of the usage of single-use plastics by their members, they are addressing the core of the problem – education.

They launched the Green Planet Learning Hub which includes a green learning centre/workshop curriculum catered for Thai students. The Green Planet Learning Hub will provide education and awareness raising programs regarding Environment & Sustainability to Thai students between 8-15 years of age in Phuket.

Their aim is to educate 5,000 Thai children per year, approximately 100 students per week. Click HERE to read.

Now that the large corporations are joining the fight and children are learning more about the environment, it’s also up to you and me to do our part so let’s do this!

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Events

March 2020, the Thai month of cancellations

The Thaiger

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March 2020, the Thai month of cancellations | The Thaiger
PHOTO: The annual Songkran celebrations are under serious threat from the coronavirus

March will end up as the long month of cancellations. With Songkran looming, one of the busiest times for travel in Thailand, and increasingly one of the biggest annual tourist magnets to the Kingdom, cancelling Songkran would take Thailand into unchartered tourism and economic territory. Fears, real or imagined, are forcing companies and governments to assess their risks associated with the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. But that’s what’s starting to happen.

But if the mega festivities and parties, big and small, aren’t cancelled soon, it will cause unnecessary expense and inconvenience with Songkran (the Thai New Year) only five weeks away. Around the country Thais traditionally head home for festivities and local celebrations with their families. For tourists it’s a popular pilgrimage where the water fights and parties have become a massive attraction in their own right.

The annual Thai splash-fest is a major generator of business for hotels, road transports companies, food & beverage services and airlines. This year the Songkran holiday runs, officially, from April 11-15 (but many workers will apply to take off the Friday before). Many of the festivities linger on for a few more days, principally in Pattaya and Chiang Mai.

Already officials have cancelled the annual Wan Lai Festival activities scheduled for April 16-17 in Saen Suk Municipality near Pattaya. It is sure to be just the first of many cancellations on the way.

Earlier this week the Moto GP, a growing and hugely popular international sporting event in Buriram, was postponed until another future date can be set.

Meanwhile, just today, the popular Koh Phangan Full Moon Party has been cancelled for March 8 with the Mayor saying there will be no other parties until the threats of the Covid-19 virus have passed.

And that’s only the tip as airlines start cancelling services amid growing international concerns and governments are spurred into actions that may end up restricting or complicating travel arrangements.

As Shakespeare wrote “Beware the Ides of March”. Just ask Julius Caesar.

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