Ships 2

Thomas Aquinas

Ships 3

Thomas Aquanis

The Thomas Aquinas Disaster

By James Donahue

The exact death toll from the collision that sank the ferry Thomas Aquinas August 16, 2013, just off the harbor of Cebu, Philippines may never be known. The ship was believed to have been carrying 715 passengers and 116 crewmembers when struck broadside by the outgoing cargo ship Sulpicio Express 7 at about 9 p.m. The collision occurred in total darkness.

At last count 31 bodies were recovered and another 170 people were counted as missing. The coast guard, military vessels and local fishermen pulled 629 people out of the water alive.

The 40-year-old ferry was carrying passengers from Nasipit, Agusan del Sur, to Cebu and was attempting to enter the port when struck by the outbound freighter at what officials describe as a narrow choke-point just outside the harbor. The Thomas Aquinas sank in about 10 minutes, trapping many passengers below deck.

One report said there were 58 mothers with their babies among the passengers.

Local fisherman Mario Chavez was among the first rescuers to reach the scene after the crash. The ferry had already disappeared under the sea when he arrived. He told of pulling 10 people out of the sea in total darkness, with only a small flashlight to find them. "They were bobbing in the water and screaming for help," Chavez said. "There were screams, but I could not get to all of them."

The Sulpicio Express 7, which sustained severe damage to the bow, managed to return safely to port with 36 crew members aboard.

The cause of the crash was under investigation. Officials said it happened in a narrow strait that offers but a narrow passage for ships entering and leaving the port. The strait was a well-known danger zone and ship’s captains often gave way to other vessels before venturing through it.

The 11,000-ton Thomas Aquinas was owned and operated by 2Go, a Chinese-owned company that has become the largest ferry operator in the Philippines. Ferries are one of the main forms of transport across the archipelago of over 7,100 islands and accidents are common. Few have been as deadly as this, however.

Damaged Freighter At Disaster Scene