"Death Ship" Inquest Begins

Sage Sagittarius

By Kathryn Stone 2015-06-05 08:06:32

An Australian coroner’s court is holding an inquest this week to follow up on foul play accusations surrounding the 2012 deaths of two mariners aboard the infamously dubbed “death ship.”

On Thursday the court began hearing witness testimony regarding the deaths of two Pilipino crewmen who both died within a two week span onboard the Sage Sagittarius, a Panama-flagged coal carrier owned by NYK Lines. The case has been shrouded in suspicion as crew members have been reluctant to speak out regarding the deaths. Council assisting in the inquest spoke today of strong mistrust and conflict among the crew in the period leading up to the men’s death as well as a culture onboard the ship that promoted silence.

According to Australian news reports, the wife of Hector Collado expressed fear over cooperating with the investigation or inquest. However, Nelia Llanto, widow of one of the deceased men, did testify today via video link. She painted a picture to the court of her husband as happy, healthy and unwilling to engage in risky behavior that could have led to his death. Additionally, forensic pathologist Dr. Brian Beer spoke to the court of a suspicious 20mm (about .8 inch) laceration on the second victim’s scalp, which appeared unrelated the man’s fall down a flight of stairs.

This week’s inquest is investigating the circumstances of two of three mysterious deaths that occurred in six-week period between August and October 2012 on what media sources have dubbed the ‘death ship’.

Cesar Llanto, the chief cook on the Sage Sagittarius was the first man onboard the vessel to die, after he disappeared August 30 in an area off of northern Queensland, Australia.  A second man, Hector Collado, the chief engineer aboard the vessel fell 11 meters (36 feet) down a stairwell to his death while the Sage Sagittarius was docked at the Port of Newcastle in New South Wales.

The situation intensified when a superintendent for the Japanese ship manager, Hachiuma Steamship, boarded the vessel to ensure the safety and welfare of the crew, but also was found dead after being crushed by a conveyor belt. However, since the third death occurred in Japanese waters it falls outside the scope of the Australian inquest.

In November 2012 shortly after the incidents occurred, International Transport Workers’ Federation coordinator Dean Summers stated that, “I haven’t seen in all my years at sea, anything that resembles this. I haven’t seen two [deaths], let alone three, so closely together.” The Maritime Union of Australia called the circumstances surrounding the deaths, ‘highly suspicious’ and suggested the first man met his death through foul play after he complained about poor pay and conditions on the ship.

Former Federal Minister Peter Morris, who headed up the 1990s Ship of Shame Report dealing with safety issues and crew treatment, has said that the Sage Sagittarius situation displays telltale signs of things the report came across including intimidation, mistreatment and forced silence. He added that low labor crew from foreign countries are often the most exploited seafarers.

The inquest is set to continue tomorrow in front of Deputy State Coroner Freund.