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MV Doña Paz: The Deadliest Maritime Disaster in History

Shipping is one of the oldest industries in the world. Since basically the dawn of history, people have been gliding through the water in boats to get from one place to another. You would think all that time and experience would lend itself to some heightened standards of safety, especially after the very famous example of an “unsinkable” ship hitting an iceberg on its first voyage and sinking with thousands of people still on board. But where the Titanic was a kind of cinematically tragic, the story we have for you today is just… well, tragic. This is the story of the MV Doña Paz, the worst maritime disaster you’ve never heard of.

“Lady Peace”

Doña Paz was built in 1963 in Onomichi, Japan, about 50km from Hiroshima. It would sail under the Japanese flag for twelve years, bearing the name Himeyuri Maru. This was the most uneventful period of its life, which is a good thing when it comes to ships. But things would soon change after the ship was sold to a Filipino passenger line named Sulpicio Lines, which is still around today under the name Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation. Whew, that is a mouthful.

Now, because this company still exists and because I don’t want to be sued, our lawyers have advised me that I should speak carefully about this next part. So, here it goes: over the course of several decades, a number of ships which happen to belong to this company just so happened to suffer some… accidents which resulted in the… unfortunate passing of a number of passengers on board. Is that good? I think that’s good.

The Himeyuri Maru entered service with Sulpicio Lines, originally being renamed to Don Sulpicio because… why not. But a few years afterwards is when the troubles began. On June 5, 1979, the ship caught fire in the middle of a voyage, with over a thousand passengers on board. Side note here, while the ship was sailing under Japan, it had a maximum passenger capacity of 608; when this accident happened, there were 1,164 passengers on board. Already, we’re almost double the nominally safe capacity for people on the ship. That seems bad, but keep those numbers in the back of your head for a minute.

Thankfully in this particular instance, all passengers and crew were rescued without any fatalities, although the ship was written off as a total loss. Sulpicio Lines didn’t want to let it go, however, and proceeded to repurchase the ship, refurbish it, and return it to service after being renamed – all the words that start with “re”, you get the picture. This is when the ship officially becomes the Doña Paz. After it was returned to service, it sailed for many years without further incident, the worst seemingly behind it. But unfortunately, we’re not done yet.

Fire in the Sea

On the night of December 20, 1987, the crew of a ship in the Tablas Strait witnessed a bright flash, far off in the distance. The sky was clear and the water was choppy; in the darkness, they both stood out against the light. The crew, correctly surmising that this flash was the result of an accident at sea and that people would need help, made their way towards it. After an hour of searching, they found twenty-six exhausted people adrift in the water and pulled them aboard. Disconcertingly, most of them were covered in burns, though their ship was nowhere to be found. Something very bad had clearly happened, but what, exactly?

The answer to that question would be pieced together over the coming weeks and months as investigations were conducted, survivors interviewed, and evidence collected. As it went on, what began as a tragedy slowly turned into a case study of total negligence.

Built in 1963 MV Dona Paz passenger ferry sank on 20 December 1987 when collided with MT Vector, considered the worst Philippines inter-island shipping accident through loss of over 4000 lives. R.I.P.. Photo taken in Tacloban City, Eastern Visayas, Philippines.By lindsaybridge, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Doña Paz was sailing for Manila through the Tablas Strait when, at around 10:30 PM, it collided with another ship, the MT Vector. They could not have picked a worse ship to hit; the Vector was an oil tanker which was, at the time of collision, carrying 1,050,000 liters (1,041 metric tons) of gasoline. This gasoline immediately ignited upon collision with the Doña Paz, spreading fire into the water and soon onto the Doña Paz. At the time of the collision, only one apprentice crewman was on the bridge when the ships collided; the rest of the crew were partying, drinking or watching TV in their quarters, while the captain was watching a movie in his cabin. The lights on the Doña Paz had gone out minutes after the collision, and the crew of the Doña Paz made no attempts to organize the passengers. Total panic ensued, as passengers and crew struggled in total darkness and with no directions to get their bearings.

It became clear from the later investigation that the Doña Paz was not prepared whatsoever for an accident of this scale – or any scale, really. The most glaring safety risk was the fact that the vessel was extremely overcrowded. The Doña Paz, which was originally built to carry 608 passengers, was eventually determined to be carrying 4,341 passengers – over seven times the limit. According to interviews with survivors, passengers were sleeping in the corridors, on the decks, and in cots with three to four people each. Many of these passengers were not on the official manifest. As if the situation weren’t bad enough, the life jackets – which were nowhere near enough to save everyone – were locked up in lockers which the crew did not open.

After the lights went out, all semblance of order fell apart. Passengers resorted to leaping from the ship into the waters of the Tablas Strait, a body of water known for sharks. Now, it’s rare for sharks to attack people, very rare in fact, and to our knowledge there were no recorded instances of shark attacks here. But sharks, like all animals, are unpredictable, and in a chaotic situation where hundreds of people are leaping and splashing into the water, where no one can even see what they’re doing… it’s not completely out of the blue.

Whatever the case, the passengers leaping into the water used things like suitcases for makeshift floatation. The waters around the ships, at this point, were still burning from the ignited gasoline. Take a moment to just imagine the situation for the passengers, from start to finish; a loud noise waking you up, confusion as to what’s happened, a crew that isn’t helping you. Then, the lights go out, the ship is on fire, the water around the ship is on fire, everyone’s panicking, and people are leaping from the deck into the flaming water without life vests. And you don’t know it, but help isn’t coming for several hours, if it’s coming at all. Those survivors that were rescued at the start of this section? They were the ones who managed to swim away from the ship; it was still sinking as they were being rescued. But no one else would be rescued from the Doña Paz. It would sink two hours after the collision, and adding in the crews of both the Vector and the Doña Paz, it would take 4,386 people with it.

The Aftermath of Tragedy

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, many heads of state offered their condolences to the people who lost loved ones in the sinking. It was later determined that the ship was so over capacity due to illegal ticket sales from people who were attempting to return home to families for the Christmas season, which is an extra twist of the knife in this sad story.

In dividing up the fault of the disaster, Sulpicio Lines was cleared of fault, largely due to the fact that the Vector was operating without a license or a lookout. The Philippine Supreme Court ruled that all of the victims’ families, even the ones who were not on the official manifest, were entitled to financial indemnity, but money, safe to say, is hardly a consolation for such a loss.

On that note, we’ve all just been through a rough year that ended only recently, and no doubt some people watching this have lost someone they knew. I know this was a rather depressing video, so we’ll end on a more uplifting note, hopefully. While the new year gets underway, take a few minutes to call a friend or family member of yours that you haven’t spoken to in a while, and let them know that you care about them. It’s still a rather rough time, but soon things will get better. Thanks for watching.

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