Inferno at sea

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

A loud clanking sound of metals blasted in the dead of night; a large explosion followed; and another; the lights went dead; billows of smoke swept the ship; there was total pandemonium and a real life nightmare confronted the thousands of passengers on board.

In split seconds between life and death, between time and space, between one’s life and that of a loved one, passengers needed to decide if they were going to die in the fire or die by drowning in the water down below. It was quite literally a choice between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

It was the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster and it happened in our country no less.

This month 34 years ago, on Dec. 20, 1987, five days before Christmas, MV Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker, just before midnight, on its way to Manila from Leyte Island.

Real life horror story

The MV Doña Paz tragedy is a hair-raising real life horror story that came to my mind after hearing the recent news about Sulpicio Shipping Lines, owner of the ill-fated vessel, but for another sea tragedy, this time involving MV Princess of the Stars, which sank in June 2008 in Romblon and left more than 800 people dead.

A court in Manila has absolved the owner of the ferry, according to a Philippine STAR report.

“In a 13-page decision signed last Nov. 18, Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 54 Judge Maria Paz Reyes-Yson dismissed the numerous charges slapped against Sulpicio Lines owner Edgar Go as it granted the demurrer of evidence – the petition that seeks to junk the cases due to lack of evidence,” the report said.

I was shocked to hear the news and I can’t help but think about all these maritime disasters.

And when we talk about sea tragedies, the MV Doña Paz always comes to mind. I spent hours watching the National Geographic documentary Asia’s Titanic that was a narration about the disaster.

‘Cockroaches and ants’

In the documentary, survivors narrated how seriously crowded the ship was.

Military officer Luthgardo Niedo, who was on his way home to Manila from Leyte, said the ship was tilted to one side.

“It was so crowded..I told myself, it must really be overcrowded since it’s nearing Christmas,” he said.

Aludia Bacsal, another passenger, said there was hardly any space to move about.

“There were so many people. We were like cockroaches and ants..There was a family crowded in one cot. There was no space to lie down..hardly any space to sleep,” she said in the same documentary.

Niedo, Aludia, and her father Salvador Bascal were among the few survivors.

They jumped ship only to be met with a ring of fire that swept through the surrounding waters as the two vessels burned.

It felt like swimming in a cauldron of boiling water, Salvador narrated in the documentary.

They had to dive down and swim farther away to get out of the ring of fire that engulfed the vessels to avoid the fire on the surface of the water, which was also filled with burning fuel. Bodies turned up and soon there was a sea of dead people.

After swimming for more than an hour, Niedo, the Bascals, and other survivors found a rescue boat coming their way. They suffered third-degree burns and scars.

But the bigger and deeper scars were those not visible to the naked eye. In the documentary, which premiered in 2009, one could still hear the trauma in their voices.

A list of maritime disasters

The Philippines is no stranger to maritime disasters. But it is not because we are an archipelagic country and that traveling by sea is common.

The problem really lies in regulation, corruption, and negligence on the part of regulators and shipping operators.

How many times have we heard of overcrowding in our passenger ferries?

MV Doña Paz’s manifest showed 1,583 passengers and 58 crew members, but survivors said there were at least 4,000 people on the ship because even chance passengers were allowed to board at the last minute.

A few years back, I too experienced a dangerous, cramped ferry ride from Manila to Marinduque, the only way to get to the province at the time.

It was a standing-room-only boat ride and we were like refugees lost at sea.

As Aludia said in the National Geographic documentary, they were like cockroaches and ants. You needed to find your spot, if you could even find one in the mammoth crowd.

It was exactly how I felt on my ferry ride to Marinduque.

We can’t go on like this anymore. The Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority must consistently ensure that passenger operators comply with all the safety standards.

Thousands of lives are at stake after all, and sadly, when tragedies strike and families of victims file cases in court, the quest for justice is as slow as a ferry ride if the passengers get it at all. In most cases, justice never comes and instead, it just disappears with the sinking ships.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com


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