Lincoln Tan

Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Rena crew quit NZ for their 'safety'

Defence Force personnel work on cleaning up toxic fuel oil washed ashore at Papamoa. Photo / Alan Gibson
Defence Force personnel work on cleaning up toxic fuel oil washed ashore at Papamoa. Photo / Alan Gibson

Filipino authorities are rushing to send home most of the crew of the stricken container ship Rena amid concerns for their safety and public anger towards the Filipino community.

Yesterday, 11 crew members were put on flights to the Philippines, leaving only six in Tauranga, including the captain and navigational officer, who are facing court charges over the ship's disastrous grounding.

Members of the Tauranga Filipino community say they are feeling the wrath of locals outraged by the disaster, and the Philippines' representative in New Zealand is worried about the growing anti-Filipino sentiments.

Shipping agent Mike Hodgin, who has been helping the crew since they evacuated their ship after it ran aground, said the Philippine Embassy was helping to send them home.

"Only six are left. We cannot say where they are, to protect their safety," Mr Hodgin said yesterday.

As the crew left New Zealand, the managing director of the Greek shipping company Costamare - which owns the Rena - apologised to the people of Tauranga and New Zealand over the environmental disaster.

"We want to say that we are deeply sorry for the situation that has arisen and the threat you are now facing from fuel oil from the vessel washing up on the beaches in your beautiful part of the world," Diamantis Manos said in a video, reading off an autocue.

"It is our ship that went aground and we apologise without hesitation for what has happened."

But Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby believed the video apology was not good enough and said: "I think the chief executive should come here to our city."

From the air yesterday, debris from the Rena could be seen strewn across the Bay of Plenty as tug boats tried to corral containers that had tumbled from the vessel.

Fuel oil from the ship has created a slick that appeared to be spreading in clumps over the bay.

The heavy black toxic oil is washing ashore, despoiling holiday beaches and killing wildlife.

Filipinos feel local wrath

Filipinos in the Bay of Plenty say that since it was revealed that crew on the Rena were from the Philippines, they have felt the wrath of the public.

"People are passing remarks like, 'They must be relatives of yours'. You know it's not a joke because you can feel the negative vibes," said Daisy Pascuade Groot, a business owner in Mt Maunganui.

"People should understand that one man's fault shouldn't be seen as everyone's fault."

Ms Pascuade Groot said even hotels she contacted trying to find where the crew members were staying, so she could offer assistance, hung up on her.

Another Filipina, who did not wish to be named, said she sensed a "growing anti-Filipino feeling" in the Bay of Plenty.

"One cyclist asked if I was Filipino, and when I said yes, he just gave me the finger and cycled off," she said.

Anger over the toll of wildlife caught in the oil spill from the Rena is also being directed against Filipinos.

"The Rena crew has murdered thousands of our native wildlife, and the community still want to help them? Unbelievable," said Kim Armstrong, a visitor from Britain whose sister lives in Tauranga.

Philippines Embassy minister and consul Giovanni Palec, who is in Tauranga to assist the remaining crew members, said he was worried about the growing anti-Filipino sentiments.

"The incident is an environmental disaster that has caused an uproar, but people should understand that no one had wanted it to happen," he said.

"We are concerned that it has given rise to negative perceptions on some Filipinos living here."

Mr Palec said he would be meeting local Filipinos to discuss the matter and reassure them.

Yesterday, he met crew members and their Costamare-provided lawyers, but would not comment on what they had discussed.

Asked what he was told about what the crew had been doing before the grounding, Mr Palec said it was inappropriate to comment as this was now a subject of investigation.

He confirmed that more than half of the crew had been put on flights home.

"Those who have been determined to have no role in the grounding of Rena have been repatriated," he said.

"Only six remain behind, and they are assisting with the investigations."

The captain and navigational officer have been granted name suppression, and Mr Palec said the rest of the crew had also been granted "address suppression".

No offer of compensation from ship owners

A spokesman for Costamare said there were "no plans in the works" for anyone from the company to come to New Zealand.

Mr Manos said he wanted to assure those affected by "these events" that the owners and managers of the Rena took their responsibilities seriously. No offer of payment was made.

"We recognise that in due course, liability for what has happened will be determined in accordance with the relevant laws and international conventions," he said.

Under the Maritime Transport Act the civil liability to the ship's insurers is capped.

Legal commentators say the maximum sum is $14 million, and Prime Minister John Key has put the clean-up costs so far at $12.1 million.

The ship is insured for US$4.2 billion for a single event, with a sub-limit of about US$S1 billion for a pollution event.

Costamare is one of the world's leading owners and providers of container ships for charter and last year made more than $443 million in profit.

- NZ Herald

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