Worst Marine Disaster Ever: The Dona Paz
By James Donahue
American and European marine researchers
like to point to the mass death tolls surrounding the Titanic, Sultana, Empress of Ireland, Mount Blanc and General Slocum
disasters as among the worst marine disasters. But a collision and fire that destroyed and sank the Philippine ferry Dona
Paz in Tablas Strait on December 20, 1987, appears to be the granddaddy of all disasters at sea.
The Titanic, Sultana and Mount Blanc disasters
claimed over 1,500 victims, each. The official passenger manifest of the Sulpicio Lines ferry recorded 1,583 passengers and
58 crew members. But survivors and researchers later said the vessel was packed with extra passengers who bought tickets illegally
at a cheaper price and were not listed. They said the death toll might well have been over 4,000, but this number cannot be
After that manifest was published, it was
learned that another 675 persons boarded the ferry in Tacloban City, and another 908 came on board in Catbalogan. Also children
under four years of age were not counted.
Details of the crash were almost impossible
to get because there were only 26 survivors, and all but two were ferry passengers. Two crew members of the gasoline tanker
Vector also were pulled from the sea alive some 16 hours after the collision.
What is known is that both ships were being
operated in violation of national marine safety standards. The Dona Paz was excessively overcrowded and the bridge was undermaned
while the crew of the Vector was found under qualified and the ship’s license had expired.
The Dona Paz sailed on December 20 from Tacloban
City, Leyte, for Manila, with a stop at Catbalogan City, Samar. It was expected to arrive the following afternoon. The last
radio contact was made at around 8 p.m. that night. Survivors said the night was clear but the sea was choppy. Passengers
were packed on decks and corridors, sleeping where ever they could find space.
In the meantime, the tanker Vector was sailing
from Bataan to Masbate with 8,800 barrels of gasoline and other petroleum products for the Caltex Philippines. The two ships
collided at 2:23 p.m., Philippine Standard Time, in the Tablas Strait, off Marinduque.
The crash ignited the Vector’s cargo
and the hot fire quickly spread to the Dona Paz. The survivors said there was a crash followed by an explosion and that there
was mass panic on the ferry. Survivor Paquito Osabel said the sea itself was burning.
They said the lights failed almost immediately
on the ferry, and the ship’s crew members were not giving any orders, and they discovered the lockers where the life
jackets were stored were locked, all of which added to the confusion and terrible loss of life. Those who survived were forced
to jump into the burning sea and swim among charred bodies in shark-infested waters.
Both ships sank, the ferry in about two hours
after the crash and the Vector two hours after that.
Apparently neither ship sent out radio distress
calls. The disaster was not known in Manila until eight hours later, when the ferry failed to arrive on schedule and search
and rescue operations were launched. By the time they were found the survivors had miraculously remained alive for some 16
hours. Most of them suffered burns.
The Philippine Coast Guard found in its investigation
that only one apprentice member of the ferry’s crew was monitoring the bridge at the time of the collision. The other
officers, including the captain, were either drinking beer or watching television. Nevertheless, the Philippine Supreme Court
ruled that it was the crew of the Vector that was responsible for the crash and the owners were liable to indemnify the victim’s
families. It was found that the Vector was operating without a license or qualified master, and the crew had not stationed
Caltex Philippines, which chartered the Vector,
was cleared of financial liability.
The 2,600-ton ferry was built at Hiroshima,
Japan, in 1963 and originally operated in Japanese waters under the name Himeyuri Maru. It was sold to Sulpicio Lines and
given its new name in 1975.