Ship's Fire Drill Sparks Massive Search

Friday, October 22, 1999
A fire drill by a ship triggered a massive search operation off the Philippine coast near Subic port last week to locate what was believed to be a burning vessel with more than 200 passengers on board, officials said. Several rescue vessels, helicopters and planes were dispatched after an official at Subic heard a distress message and thought there was a genuine emergency, said Coast Guard Operations chief Commander Efren Sabas. Subic port officials earlier told reporters the MV Palawan Princess was on fire some seven nautical miles south of Subic Bay, according to coordinates they received from the distress call. Most of the passengers were rescued, they said later. "It was a drill by the Palawan Princess while tied at the pier in Manila," said Sabas. "There was a scramble...later I had to send a message to abort the mission. It was a false alarm, a fire drill." Another coast guard officer said the ship had also radioed assumed coordinates to fix its location. Suspicions that it was a drill surfaced only when the rescue vessels and aircraft sent to the area reported they could find no sign of any stricken ship, they said. "We were all alarmed here and we mobilized a lot of people just to address this call," said Rex Chan, the chief operations officer of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority. "Our radio here is connected to all maritime radio. That distress signal went into our system. We could not ignore it." He said Subic port later received radio reports that the passengers were rescued, apparently also part of the drill. The Palawan Princess conducted the drill while berthed at the Manila docks, said Ramuel Rembonanza, a senior officer for Sulpicio Lines, the owners of the ship. "The radio operator sent a message that we were conducting a drill," he said. "Subic is far away so they might have received a garbled message," he said. "And they immediately responded." Subic Bay is 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Manila. - (Ruben Alabastro, Reuters)
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