Asia’s "Titanic" Sinks

“In what is described as the deadliest ferry disaster in history, on this day in 1987 the Philippine-registered ferry MV Dona Paz sank after a deadly collision, killing more than 4,000 people aboard.

On 20 December 1987, at about 6:30 in the morning, the Dona Paz embarked from Tacloban City, Leyte, en route to the Philippine capital of Manila with a stopover in Catbalogan City, Samar. A Japanese-made vessel built in 1963, she was due to arrive in Manila at 4 AM the next morning. It was clear skies and choppy seas that night, as the Dona Paz approached Dumali Point in the Tablas Strait. Suddenly, while most of her passengers were fast asleep in the dark of the night, the Dona Paz struck another vessel. She had collided with the oil tanker the MT Vector.

The Vector was carrying 8,800 barrels of gasoline and petroleum products. Immediately upon colliding with the Dona Paz, the Vector’s cargo ignited and sparked an inferno that quickly spread to the Dona Paz. Passengers aboard the ferry awoke in alarm and panicked as the flames spread like wildfire on the ship. One survivor said it seemed the sea itself was on fire. Others claimed there were no lights on board, nor life vests, and the crew gave startled passengers no orders. While thousands of passengers perished on board, some jumped ship and swam in the shark-infested waters of Tablas Strait among the charred bodies. Less than two hours after the deadly collision, the Dona Paz sank, taking any surviving passengers on board with her. The Vector sank two hours later.

Only 26 survivors were pulled from the sea, 24 of them passengers from the Dona Paz and two crewmembers from the Vector. Although the official death toll was reported as 1,749, the actual death toll was much higher. The Dona Paz was carrying as many as 3,000 to 4,000 passengers, many of them not on the official manifest. As such, the actual death toll is closer to 4,000, with the 2008 World Almanac estimating 4,341 lives were lost.

An investigation by the Philippine Coast Guard revealed the ship’s captain and most of the crew were either drinking beer or watching TV or movies. The Vector was operating without a license, lookout, or qualified master.

TIME magazine called the accident the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster of the 20th century. National Geographic magazine dubbed the Dona Paz “”Asia’s Titanic.”””