The sinking of MV Doña Paz is the deadliest ship disaster during a peace time in history. (The deadliest ship disaster of all time – the sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff – took place during a time of war.) Doña Paz (or “Dona Paz” if the tilde over the “n” throws you off) collided with another ship, the oil tanker MT Vector, on December 20, 1987, a disaster that is believed to have claimed well over 4,000 lives. Since Doña Paz was a Philippine-registered ship that sailed in eastern waters, the sinking of Doña Paz has been called “Asia’s Titanic” (although over twice as many people died in the Doña Paz disaster than in the Titanic disaster).
[NOTE: Why is there this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship, on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]
Doña Paz was built in Japan and began its career as a Japanese ship. It was built in 1963 and was originally named “Himeyuri Maru.” In 1975, the ship was purchased by Sulpicio Lines, a Filipino company that operated passenger ships. (This ship operator is still in business, although it is now called “Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation.”) From 1963 till its sinking, Doña Paz only operated as a passenger ferry.
On the day the ship sank, it was carrying passengers from Tacloban City, Leyte (Leyte is a province of the Philippines) to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, although it also stopped at Catbalogan City, Samar to pick up additional passengers on the way. (Like Leyte, Samar is part of the Philippines, but it is composed of three provinces.) In the middle of the night, when most passengers were sleeping, Doña Paz collided with Vector, which was carrying nearly 9,000 barrels of gasoline.
Vector caught fire after the collision, and the fire quickly spread to Doña Paz. As the flames began to engulf to the ship, passengers panicked. The hectic situation was not helped by the fact that no crew members were giving orders and no life jackets were available (they were in locked lockers), according to survivor accounts. Any passenger not killed by the fire was forced to jump into the sea, which was itself on fire because of gasoline leaking from Vector. Doña Paz sank in two hours, Vector in four, and to make matters worse, both vessels went down in shark-infested waters. And to make matters worse still, authorities were not even aware of the disaster until eight hours after it occurred, and it took an additional eight hours to organize and launch rescue operations.
The number of people who died as a result of the sinking is not known because so many passengers on board Doña Paz were not officially registered. Doña Paz’s records indicated that 1,493 passengers were on board, 69 more than the official carrying capacity of the ship. This is itself unfortunate, but it in no way captures how many people were actually on board the vessel. According to survivors, an enormous number of illegal tickets were bought on board the ship, bringing the total number of passengers to 3,000 or 4,000, as it was later determined. (There were also dozens of crew members between the two ships.) Of the 24 passengers who survived, only five were officially registered passengers, and of the 21 bodies that were recovered soon after the sinking, only one was officially registered.
The exact number of people who died as a result of the sinking of Doña Paz may never be known. What is known is that far more passengers were on board the ship than were officially registered, and this means that far more people died in the disaster. It was a tragedy for all involved, regardless of who held legitimate tickets.