Daily Event for December 20

1987: The greatest peacetime disaster in history took place in the waters off Mindoro in the Philippines. The passenger ferry Dona Paz collided with the tanker Vector in the Sibuyan Sea in the strait between Mindoro and the Island of Marinduque. Dona Paz, built in Japan in 1963 measured 305' long with a 45' beam. Owned by the Sulpicio Line she was licensed to carry only 1,518 people. However, in the Philippines laws are often ignored and the infamous disasters due to overloading are numerous. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 people die each year in accidents among the over 880 inhabited islands of the Philippines.

The morning of Dec. 20 was no different than any other on a Filipino ferry. Thousands crowded into a ship not able to carry them safely and no authority, including the Coast Guard, checked let alone stopped the ship. She sailed from Tacloban on the island of Leyte bound for the capitol of Manila with an estimated 4,343 passengers plus the crew. The majority of the people were returning home to celebrate Christmas making the following events that much more tragic. One can only imagine how these people were stacked around the ship. No quarters for most of them so they were sleeping on the deck and in the gangways. A sea of humanity on a journey to eternity.

At 22:00 only a junior officer was on the bridge, the rest of the ships officers were either watching TV or drinking beer. Shortly after entering the strait the tanker Vector, carrying 8,800 barrels of flammable liquids approached from the opposite direction. The night was described as dark and moonless but clear so, why neither ship say the lights of the other is unknown. Soon after 22:00 the ships collided.

The Vector's cargo exploded and flames spread across the water and on to the Dona Paz. Both ship were engulfed in flames. There was no distress signal sent by the Dona Paz for one a simple reason, she had no radio! Why a ship in 1963 could be sailing around without a radio is unknown to me. This was just another blunder that contributed to the disaster. However it is unlikely that much could have been done even if a distress signal had been sent.

A ferry only eight miles away sighted the burning ships and sped toward the scene arriving about 22:30. When they arrived the Dona Paz was fully involved, the captain of the other ferry said he saw flames as high as a ten storey building. He also found only twenty six badly burned survivors, only twenty four from the Dona Paz. Around midnight the Dona Paz went under, the death toll was appalling, 4,317 people had either burned to death or were trapped below and drowned. Two crewmen from the Vector, which sank a couple of hours later, survived but, the other eleven were killed along with fifty eight of the crew of the Dona Paz making the total number of people killed a staggering four thousand three hundred and eighty six.

The inquiry found the Coast Guard negligent for allowing the Dona Paz to sail in such an overcrowded condition but, found the collision was the fault of the Vector. Although as one would guess the tankers owners claimed that the Dona Paz was at fault. We will never know for sure what happened to cause the collision because all those involved were killed.

© 2005 Michael W. Pocock


Dona Paz