This week in Philippine hiStory: MV Doña Paz: Asia’s Titanic
How is your December so far? Have you already gone to get-togethers and sampled the first wave of feasts that will only increase in the coming days? My family has been to a few get-togethers with relatives here in Manila, but our dinners were comparatively simpler than the past years. I think it’s just thoughtful if we also think about those who have been caught in the tragedy of the past months. Today’s history topic is another reason to be more thankful and humble this Christmas because it’s about another tragic day in the Philippines.
I’m talking about the sinking of a ship… no less than what Time Magazine called the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster of the 20th century. You would have heard of this in the news in 1987: it has raised a lot of controversy and turned many concerned heads, including Pope John Paul II.
This is 20 December, the sinking of MV Doña Paz off Mindoro island, the Christmas tragedy of the year.
Grab a chair and listen…
The Doña Paz
Motor Vessel Doña Paz was originally the Himeyuri Maru built in 1963 in Hiroshima, Japan. After serving Japan for a few years, it was then sold to shipping company Sulpicio Lines (now called the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation), and, following its purchase, was renamed Don Sulpicio.
Don Sulpicio was one half of Sulpicio Line’s ‘Big Two’: two passenger ferries which were the pride of the company. The other was sister ship Doña Ana, which also had its fair share of tragedy when it was destroyed by a typhoon in ‘88. Nevertheless, during the height of their journeys to and from the major cities of Manila and Cebu, both Don Sulpicio and Doña Ana were the stars of maritime travels that bridged Luzon and Visayas.
But Don Sulpicio’s fame was dashed on 5 June 1979. Tragedy in the form of a fire left the ship gutted by flames. The source was said to be a cigarette butt carelessly thrown into the hold. All 1,164 passengers were thankfully saved, but the ship was declared a total loss.
Sulpicio Lines wasn’t about to give up on its star ship, however, and purchased the wreck from the underwriters. In 1981, Don Sulpicio was launched as MV Doña Paz after being repaired and refurbished. Doña Paz was given the Manila–Tacloban (Leyte)–Catbalogan (Samar)–Manila route, taking two trips a week. For six years it ran smoothly and served Sulpicio lines well. But the fortune of the ship once again took a turn for the worse one day near Christmas of 1987.
20 December 1987
Doña Paz was bound for Manila from Tacloban. It left Leyte at around 6:30am of 20 December and was scheduled to reach Manila by 4am the next day. En route, it made a stopover in Catbalogan in the morning.
At around 10:00pm the ship reached Tablas Straight between Mindoro and Marinduque islands. It was night time, most passengers were asleep and the crew was becoming lax. Around that time, the Doña Paz, on its leisurely way to Manila, collided with oil tanker MT Vector.
MT Vector was carrying 1 million litres of gasoline and other fuels owned by petroleum company Caltex Philippines. The impact of the collision released the fuel, which immediately ignited and spread around the two ships. The result was a catastrophe of epic proportions: explosion, fire… death.
Doña Paz sank within two hours; Vector followed suit within four hours. Both were swallowed in the depths of the TablasStrait, 1,788ft underwater.
In the report on the sinking of the Doña Paz, which was concluded more than 10 years after the tragedy, the total death toll resulting from the collision of the two ships was placed at more than 4,000. President Corazon Aquino called the incident ‘a national tragedy of harrowing proportions.’ Only 26 people survived the collision: two from Vector and 24 from Doña Paz. The number of deaths, the magnitude of the destruction and the conditions that led to it, all contributed to that event being named the deadliest sea disaster of that century.
The scale of the tragedy gained momentum abroad. Pope John Paul II sent his condolences, and so did Queen Elizabeth II of Britain and Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. Later on, it grabbed the eyes of Time Magazine and the National Geographic Channel. But what really happened that fateful December night?
The investigations that were made after 20 December was like a difficult detective work for those assigned to solve the mystery: it involved a web of information that the investigators had to tie up together to finally understand what happened.
Why had so many people died in 13-man Vector and 1,568-passenger Doña Paz? Fact one: it was because Sulpicio was overloaded. The ferry officially had 1,568 passengers on board, more than the regulated number of passengers the ship could carry. But, as per survivor’s stories, Doña Paz was carrying more than that. They said the ship was full to bursting, with people taking over corridors and sleeping four to a bed. The estimate after the death toll was considered was that more than 4,300 people boarded a ship made for less than 1,500.
Why was Doña Paz overloaded? See, it was the Christmas season, and people were clamoring for places in the ship. Some of the tickets were sold ‘illegally’, that is outside the official ticket booths. Sulpicio of course knew that there was something going on… the overloading would have been pretty obvious by then. Although they may not have had control over the illegal sellers (I think they wouldn’t have stopped the passengers from buying these tickets because it was their only way to get into the ship), they should have been still held accountable for allowing the ship to go overload.
Aside from counting the number of dead bodies recovered at sea, investigators reached an estimate by collecting names from the official manifest and from family and friends of missing persons. The overloading explains the death toll. Now, why did the ship collide?
Face two: one report said Doña Paz’s crew was becoming lax at that point in the evening. According to the Philippine Coast Guard and some survivors, only one member was monitoring the ship when the collision happened. The rest were either watching television, gambling or drinking.
But despite showing negligence that night, official reports put the blame on Vector, which was called a ‘floating hazard of navigation’. Why? Fact three: MT Vector had a lot of problems — steering and radio were out, for example. What more, the ship was operating without a licence and they had no lookout.
That night, the undermanned, ill-fitting Vector slammed into Doña Paz’s left side, destroying the ship’s engine and generator. The fuel Vector carried ignited, and the fire caused the heaviest damage of all.
The survivors recall being awakened by a huge explosion. Not only were the ships on fire, the sea was too because the fuel had begun to spill. A lot of those who jumped suffered burns; those who survived said they swam underwater to avoid the fire. But the biggest cause of death had been drowning. Some survivors said the life jackets had been locked up in cabinets, and there had been no organisation during the crucial moments after the collision. The lifeboats were also left unused, as people chose to jump overboard to save themselves from the choking, black smoke and the flames. Still, many people chose not to jump because they had kids with them; it was estimated there were 1,000 unlisted children on board.
Many people were angry at Sulpicio Lines and demanded for help and answers. Sulpicio’s fault, allowing to ship to become overcrowded and the crew’s negligence, was overlooked. But the court cleared them of the fault and ruled Vector as the liable party. This drew protests from relatives who were simply not convinced of Sulpicio’s innocence in the tragedy. The court required the owners of Vector to compensate for the victims of the collision, both those listed and not listed in the manifest.
Years and years after the disaster, the case remains open for the families of the victims. While investigators tried to be thorough, while justice ruled out who was innocent and at fault, the real facts remain shrouded in mystery as thick as the black smoke that filled the sky that fateful December night.
Why is it many sad things happen just when we are at our happiest? Just like the mystery that hides the real score behind the sinking of Vector and Doña Paz, there are just some things we cannot tell for good. But we can always prepare for them. The Vector sailed without the right permits, and Doña Paz sailed overcrowded and its crew was distracted. If just one of these incidents turned out differently, then 4,000 lives could have been spared that night.
Christmas is a period of joy, and yet we may still face tragedies at this time of the year that are too hard to bear and too hurtful to forget. There are no remedies for pain, but there certainly are for negligence and carelessness. If we learned to be more careful, maybe we would be spared the pain in such a happy time. We may never change what fate has in store for us, but our smallest decisions today can influence every second of our lives in the future. With the power of good decision, we could try to push our lives towards a better direction.
No one can change what happened to the Doña Paz, as much as not one of us now can change what happened in Bohol after the earthquake and Visayas after typhoon Yolanda. But what changes we can do now can still send ripples as far as the eye can see. What about you, what small decisions have you made in the past that have so affected your life right now? Would you have changed that decision if you were given the chance to? Why or why not? Share your thoughts by commenting below!