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‘Death Ship’ inquiry reveals bullying, intimidation and fear

An Australian coroner’s inquest into crewmember deaths aboard the 800-foot coal carrier Sage Sagittarius is looking as murky as an Agatha Christie mystery, exposing the dark underbelly of flag-of-convenience ships that employ people who are desperate for work, under appalling conditions.

There were three crewmember deaths in less than two months aboard the Sage Sagittarius.

Nicknamed the “Death Ship,” the Japanese-managed, Panamanian-flagged Sage Sagittarius was on its regular run from Kudamatsu, Japan, to Newcastle, Australia, to pick up a load of coal when the ship’s 42-year-old chief cook, Filipino Cesar Llanto, vanished, presumably lost overboard, 450 nautical miles northwest of Cairns, Australia, on Aug. 30, 2012. On Sept. 14, the ship’s chief engineer, Hector Collado, 57, also a Filipino, fell 36 feet down an engineering shaft after a blow to the head as he prepared to disembark at Newcastle, where the ship was docked.

A third man, Kosaku Monji, 37, an operations superintendent for Hachiuma Steamship Co. Ltd. — the Japanese company that manages Sage Sagittarius — was crushed to death in a conveyor belt as it unloaded coal from the ship in Kudamatsu on Oct. 6. Monji had joined the ship in Australia, after the deaths of the two crewmen.

His death was not a subject of the New South Wales Coroner’s Court inquest this summer. A Japan Transport Safety Board inquiry concluded Monji’s death was accidental, noting that Sagittarius’ entire 24-man crew had rotated out in Newcastle.

Yet three workers dying in six weeks on the 15-year-old carrier is an unprecedented number of losses in such a short time. Testimony at the inquest revealed that this was a ship in disarray. There had been bullying, “intense conflict and mutual mistrust” among the crew, harassment of a gay crewmember and a “culture of silence” on board at the time of the first two deaths, the Australian Associated Press reported.

Contributing to the disorder and poor morale, the captain, Venancio Salas Jr., 44, acknowledged to the court he had been selling mail-order handguns to his crew and reaping a commission from the sales, a violation of company policy. Some of the crew alleged that many bought guns just to stay in Salas’ good graces.

Philip Strickland, counsel to coroner Sharon Freund, says there had been a culture of silence on the ship and a climate of “fear or intimidation” that made it difficult for the Australian Federal Police to investigate the case. The hearings probed intrigue involving Jessie Martinez, a 26-year-old gay galley hand who had been at sea just two months. Martinez — and other crewmembers — alleged that Salas bullied, teased and assaulted him after he was “outed.” Salas denied the allegations in Skyped testimony from the Philippines, saying he had punched the green seaman in the stomach because Martinez had boasted he had rock-hard abs and whacked him in the rear end with a slipper at a ship’s party after warning him to stop dancing provocatively.

The federal police say crew testimony also revealed that Martinez — encouraged by shipmate Raul Tunacao Vercede, a 34-year-old veteran engine oiler — had written a complaint against the captain on Llanto’s computer and planned to file it with the International Transport Workers’ Federation in Australia. The complaint detailed Martinez’s grievances against Salas, as well as the captain’s moonlighting as a gun dealer. The coroner learned that Llanto, a mentor of Martinez’s, had strongly advised the young crewman not to file the complaint because it would reflect poorly on those who helped him get his merchant mariner job, and that Llanto and Vercede had argued bitterly over the matter.

Ultimately Martinez decided not to file the complaint and went to the captain to tell him he had decided not to. Strickland says Salas found out about the plan on the morning of Llanto’s disappearance and ordered Martinez to delete it from Llanto’s laptop.

Other tensions surfaced, as well. One crewmember testified that he overheard Salas and Llanto arguing in the ship’s galley a week before the cook’s disappearance about an order the captain had given to serve less food to the crew, which would have reduced the galley budget and benefited the captain financially.

At least one crewmember testified that he “feared for his life” after Llanto disappeared. Others disembarked at Port Kembla after the incident, also because of fear, and one crewmember testified that engineer Collado, who died in the fall, had “not been sleeping well” in the days before his death. “At the very time of [Llanto’s] disappearance and [Collado’s] death, there was intense personal conflict and mutual mistrust among the crew,” Strickland said at the court hearing.

Sage Sagittarius flies a Panamanian flag-of-convenience to avoid tougher regulations in its true home country.

Adding more mystery to the case, audio recordings from the ship’s upper decks for the period when Llanto disappeared, which were supposed to be on the ship’s voyage data recorder, were overwritten rather than saved, as required by law, representatives of Hachiuma Steamship reported to the court. No reason was given for the oversight.

The Coroner’s Court had not determined Llanto’s or Collado’s cause of death as of mid-July, and federal authorities had filed no charges, though the cases are three years old. However, Australian Regional Media, one of the country’s largest newspaper publishers, and Four Corners, an investigative television program, published series on the deaths this past June, which stirred up a political hornet’s nest and an Australian Senate inquiry into flag-of-convenience shipping. 

Flag-of-convenience refers to the practice of shipping companies registering a vessel in a country with lax rules and regulations, such as Panama, Liberia or the Marshall Islands. The ship flies the flag of the “host” nation. The practice reduces operating costs and enables a shipper to avoid tougher regulations in its true home country.

“The murky world of FOC shipping needs to be investigated,” says Dean Summers, the Transport Workers’ Federation’s Australia coordinator, in a statement. “Intimidation, bullying and harassment are often an unfortunate part of life on board FOC vessels, and it’s allowed to happen because of jurisdictional blurred lines and a lack of regulation.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue.