December 20, 1987: Worst Peacetime Sea Disaster

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A Brief History

On December 20, 1987, the passenger ferry Dona Paz sank with twice as many drowned as the Titanic!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find around 1500 souls lost on the Titanic, and perhaps 4300 lost on the Dona Paz!

Originally built and operated in Japan (1963), the Dona Paz was designed for only 608 passengers, although when operated in the Philippines after being sold in 1975 it was given a capacity of about 1500.

On the fateful day of December 12, 1987, the ferry carried far more than the claimed roughly 1600 people, probably about 4000 or more.  About 10:30 p.m. local time en route between Tacloban and Manila the Dona Paz collided with a tanker ship, the MT Vector.  Pandemonium reigned supreme as the gasoline carried by the tanker burst into flames and spread to the hapless ferry.  The Dona Paz suffered a great explosion and sank about 2 hours after the collision, with the Vector sinking within 2 hours later.

With no lifeboats or life-jackets present, and no direction from the crew, the passengers had no choice but to jump overboard into the flaming seas.  Either the Dona Paz did not have a radio or for some reason did not send a distress signal.  One way or another, authorities did not hear of the tragedy until about 8 hours later, and took another 8 hours to organize search and rescue operations!

Out of the 4000+ aboard the ferry and the 13 man crew of the tanker, only 2 of the tanker’s crew were rescued and only 24 passengers survived from the ferry.  Despite the conflicting numbers of passengers claimed, this tragedy is generally accepted as the worst peacetime maritime disaster of all time (by authorities such as Time magazine and The World Almanac).

Investigation of the incident revealed shoddy seamanship on the part of both vessels, with only one apprentice crew member on the bridge of Dona Paz and the Vector operating without a lookout, qualified captain, or even a license! Victims were paid a pittance of less than $500 as a settlement, with the only bright side being that even those passenger/victims not on the manifest still got paid.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever experienced a disaster at sea?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information on this tragedy and others, please see…

Eastlake, Keith, Henry Russell, et al., eds.  World Disasters: Tragedies in the Modern Age.  Routledge, 2001.

Lancaster, John.  Engineering Catastrophes: Causes and Effects of Major Accidents.  CRC Press, 2000.

Woods, Mary B. and Michael Woods.  Disasters at Sea (Disasters Up Close).  Lernerclassroom, 2007.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.