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"Asia's Titanic": Remembering the Tragedy of the MV Doña Paz

On December 20, 1987, the MV Doña Paz sank, taking with it the lives of over 4,000 passengers. It is still the worst maritime disaster in Asia.
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Just before midnight of December 20, 1987, the passengers of the MV Doña Paz were confronted with a choice: to die by drowning or to die by burning.

They heard a large collision, a hair-raising clanking of metals. Then, all the lights went out. Immediately after, a sound of explosion, followed by flames that engulfed the ship and its unfortunate passengers.

Some were able to jump overboard, only to be met by a watery inferno, caused by gasoline and kerosene that spilled out of the ship that collided with their vessel.

Out of what could have 4,386 onboard, only 24 had survived.

A “tilted, overcrowded” ship

One of the survivors of the wreck was Luthgardo Niedo, a military officer who was on his way home to Manila from Leyte. He and about 1,000 other military and police officers, still wearing their uniforms, boarded the Doña Paz, he would narrate later in the documentary Asia’s Titanic.

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“It was so crowded, the Doña Paz tilted to one side. Before I rode the ship, I noticed it was tilted to one side. I told myself, it must really be overcrowded since it’s nearing Christmas,” he said.

Aludia Bacsal, another passenger, described in the same documentary that the passengers were like cockroaches or ants. Children were crying, people were restless, she said. Four people shared one makeshift cot and hundreds sat on the floor of the three-deck ship.

Her father, Salvador, tried to get food from the kitchen, but the ship was also in short supply due to the overwhelming number of chance passengers that many of the survivors estimate to be over 4,000.

The official passenger list, however, only showed that there were 1,493 passengers on board, with crew of around 60. However, this may not count the 1,000 children below 4 years old. Also left out from the manifest were the chance passengers who boarded in the last minute, including Niedo and what he estimates to be 1,000 soldiers—roughly the same number as one battalion.

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At about 11 p.m., Salvador was on deck and, for lack of enough restrooms, relieved himself there. That’s when he noticed that another ship was heading towards them.

“After a while it seemed to be getting too close. I said to myself, we were going to crash,” Salvador said.

The ship in question was actually an oil tanker called the MT Vector. It was no ordinary ship. It carried over 8,000 barrels of highly flammable gasoline and kerosene in its holds.

At half past 11, the MT Vector’s bow had rammed on the left side of MV Doña Paz, right where the engine room and main switchboard were located.

After the initial explosion, the fire spread quickly, trapping those nearby in flames. People were stampeding down the corridors in near total darkness. Some ran down to the lower deck to escape the rising flames and fumes but got lost.

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Those who were ear the ship’s railings jumped overboard to take their chances with swimming safely to shore. One of them was Aludia, who did not know that the sea was also on fire because oil had spilled onto the waters.

“This is an inferno. There was fire at sea. I would probably die here,” she said.

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Perils at sea

Luthgardo was one of the first people to jump and a minute after, the Doña Paz and MT Vector also exploded. Their parts scattered, setting fire in the ships’ vicinity.

According to the surviving witnesses, hundreds were able to jump aboard. Their dilemma was now to dive deep or swim fast and far away to escape the fire. The flames grew to a kilometre wide as the night winds fanned the flame bigger. Even before survivors could get away, they had to swim through the bodies of their fellow passengers—burnt, slick from oil, and almost unrecognizable.

Aludia had a hard time keeping afloat; worse, the water, hot from the oil and fire, was starting to boil the survivors alive.

“I wanted to just drown, I was too tired,” she recalled, but she found herself going up and breathing for air every chance she got.

When her father finally found her, her skinned peeled off when he pulled her close to him. Despite this, they were relieved to find each other. Salvador thought, if they had to die, at least they will die together.

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They swam for more than an hour to just get away from the hot waters that was burning them alive. That was when another ship arrived. The survivors mustered what remained of their strength to wave at the Doña Claudio and get its attention.

When crew members on board the Doña Claudio threw Salvador and Aludia a life line, Salvador shouted that they don’t have any more strength. The two were later hoisted up in nets. On board the new sea vessel, many of the survivors received first-aid treatment, some for third-degree burns, including Aludia.

Many others were full so full of burns that their skin started peeling off and dripping off, according to survivors. Luthgardo found himself the only uniformed personnel among the survivors. He grimly thought that his fellow soldiers must have drowned or have been eaten by sharks.

True enough, when both ships sank in about 1,788 feet of water, it was in the shark-infested Tablas Strait. That was just another challenge that those who jumped overboard had to tackle in order to survive.

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During the next few days, the neighboring island of Mindoro became littered with bloated corpses. The villagers made a routine to dig holes to bury incoming bodies. Fisherfolk caught corpses in their nets instead of fish.

The news reached the coast guard only eight hours after the tragedy and it took them another eight hours to activate a search and rescue operation.

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Who is to blame?

Sulpicio Shipping Lines, owner of Doña Paz, insisted that their ferry was not overcrowded. They reiterated the ship’s manifesto that listed only 1,493. They also said that the survivors were not credible eyewitnesses who were not qualified to count the actual number of people who went onboard.

However, experts agree on various reports, that overloading was a crucial factor in the disaster, because it would not have been easy to veer the ship away from danger.

The Board of Marine Inquiry noted that the two surviving crew members from MT Vector were asleep when the collision happened. They had to rely on the history of the vessel’s operation to make sense of what happened. 

What they found out is that: 1) Two people had to steer the wheel because of the ship's weight, which made them go in a zigzag motion towards Doña Paz. This, in turn, may have confused the crew members aboard Doña Paz. 2) The tanker was undermanned, and the crew included an underqualified chief and chief engineer, who did not have licenses at all. It was possible that there was no lookout to have noticed the impeding collision. 3) The Vector had sailed without certificate of inspection, which was required for vessels to be seaworthy.

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On the other hand, why didn’t Doña Paz move when it saw the Vector approaching? There was plenty of moving space in the wide-open sea.

Commoder Benjamin Mata, a maritime safety expert, voiced his opinion in the Asia’s Titanicdocumentary. He said that the tragedy wasn't even a high-speed accident—the Doña Paz was moving at 26 kmh and the Vector, 8 kmh. He also noted that there was no proper radio on board, which made it impossible for ships to communicate. Crucially, however, is that the watchers could be asleep. If they were not, they could have spotted the incoming ship from afar.

At the end of the investigation, the Vector was blamed. However, over 4,000 families continued to pressure Sulpicio Lines, asking for accountability. Only the victims from the official list were given compensation of merely USD 4,000. Those who were not on the list were not given even a single centavo. The families of those who were lost were only given some form of compensation in March 2017.

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In spite of all this, a burning question remains: Why didn’t the crew of Doña Paz evaded the incoming ship?

The answer seems to rely on Luthgardo’s testimony. Just before the collision, he met a fellow soldier who said that there was a party at the bridge, which included the captain.

“I heard music and laughter. They were having fun. Do you know that the captain was there at the party? The captain of the ship was at the party,” Luthgardo was told by a fellow soldier. This means that an apprentice mate was steering the ship, which added another layer to the already complicated series of incompetency that led to a disaster.

For Luthgardo, the experience traumatized him for life. “I don’t want to ride a ship ever again. I won't, even if its for free,” he said.

While gross negligence and incompetence seem to be the culprits of this tragedy, no one may really know what happened in the captains’ quarters of the two vessels that night and the truth may be buried along with them, at the bottom of the sea.

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Sources:

Remembering Doña Paz, The Shipwreck Worse Than the Titanic: https://www.elitereaders.com/remembering-dona-paz-deadliest-shipwreck-history-worse-titanic/

Ferry collides with oil tanker near Manila: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/ferry-collides-with-oil-tanker-near-manila

MV Doña Paz The Asia’s Titanic: Bloodiest Maritime Disaster https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_fg8AtOCGY

Asia's Titanic - Thousands Died Thirty Years Ago https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/asias-titanic-thousands-died-thirty-years-ago

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This story originally appeared on Esquiremag.ph.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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