The MV Dona Paz tragedy: The worst maritime disaster in history

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MV Dona Paz
The aftermath of the tragedy

The collided with the oil tanker MT Vector on December 30, 1987. Considered the worst maritime accident in history, 4,286 people perished on the ferry. The awful death toll was caused by massive overcrowding by people returning to their family homes to Celebrate Christmas. Shockingly, only 24 people are known to have survived the inferno after the tanker struck the ferry and burst into flames.

MV Dona Paz

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The MV Dona Paz had been travelling from Leyte Island to Manila carrying more than 2,000 people over its capacity. The ship was in seriously lacking in safety features, carrying no on-board radio and all the life-jackets were locked in cabinets. The MT Vector tanker was officially blamed for the accident as the entire ship was considered unseaworthy, operating without a licence and had no lookout or qualified ship master.

MV Dona Paz

Oddly the MV Dona Paz was a refurbished ship that also saw trouble on June 5, 1979. Originally named the Don Supicio the ferry was gutted by fire en-route to Manila after leaving Cebu. All 1,164 passengers on board were rescued but the ship was beached and declared a constructive loss.

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The wreck was repurchased from the insurance underwriters by Sulpicio Lines, rebuilt and returned to service as the Dona Paz. Only seven years later it would once again be involved in an accident, but this time causing one of the most horrific loss of life in any maritime accident in peacetime history.

MV Dona Paz

President Corazon Aquino described the accident as “a national tragedy of harrowing proportions…the Filipino people’s sadness is all the more painful because the tragedy struck with the approach of Christmas”.

Pope John Paul II, Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and Queen Elizabeth II conveyed official messages of condolence.

Sulpicio Lines announced three days after the accident that MV Dona Paz was insured for 25,000,000 pesos, but it was willing to pay only 20,000 pesos for each victim.

According to the initial investigation conducted by the Philippine Coast Guard, only one apprentice member of the crew of  was monitoring the bridge when the accident occurred. Other officers were either drinking beer or watching television in the crew’s recreation quarters, while the ship’s captain was watching a movie on his Betamax in his cabin.

Nonetheless, the Board of Marine Inquiry eventually cleared Sulpicio Lines of fault in the accident. In 1999, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that it was the owners of Vector who were liable to indemnify the victims.

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