Just before midnight of December 20, 1987, the passengers of the MV Doña Paz were confronted with a choice: to die by drowning or to die by burning.
They heard a large collision, a hair-raising clanking of metals. Then, all the lights went out. Immediately after, a sound of explosion, followed by flames that engulfed the ship and its unfortunate passengers.
Some were able to jump overboard, only to be met by a watery inferno, caused by gasoline and kerosene that spilled out of the ship that collided with their vessel.
Out of what could have 4,386 onboard, only 24 had survived.
A “tilted, overcrowded” ship
One of the survivors of the wreck was Luthgardo Niedo, a military officer who was on his way home to Manila from Leyte. He and about 1,000 other military and police officers, still wearing their uniforms, boarded the Doña Paz, he would narrate later in the documentary Asia’s Titanic.
“It was so crowded, the Doña Paz tilted to one side. Before I rode the ship, I noticed it was tilted to one side. I told myself, it must really be overcrowded since it’s nearing Christmas,” he said.
Aludia Bacsal, another passenger, described in the same documentary that the passengers were like cockroaches or ants. Children were crying, people were restless, she said. Four people shared one makeshift cot and hundreds sat on the floor of the three-deck ship.
Her father, Salvador, tried to get food from the kitchen, but the ship was also in short supply due to the overwhelming number of chance passengers that many of the survivors estimate to be over 4,000.
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The official passenger list, however, only showed that there were 1,493 passengers on board, with crew of around 60. However, this may not count the 1,000 children below 4 years old. Also left out from the manifest were the chance passengers who boarded in the last minute, including Niedo and what he estimates to be 1,000 soldiers—roughly the same number as one battalion.
At about 11 p.m., Salvador was on deck and, for lack of enough restrooms, relieved himself there. That’s when he noticed that another ship was heading towards them.
“After a while it seemed to be getting too close. I said to myself, we were going to crash,” Salvador said.
The ship in question was actually an oil tanker called the MT Vector. It was no ordinary ship. It carried over 8,000 barrels of highly flammable gasoline and kerosene in its holds.
At half past 11, the MT Vector’s bow had rammed on the left side of MV Doña Paz, right where the engine room and main switchboard were located.
After the initial explosion, the fire spread quickly, trapping those nearby in flames. People were stampeding down the corridors in near total darkness. Some ran down to the lower deck to escape the rising flames and fumes but got lost.
Those who were ear the ship’s railings jumped overboard to take their chances with swimming safely to shore. One of them was Aludia, who did not know that the sea was also on fire because oil had spilled onto the waters.
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“This is an inferno. There was fire at sea. I would probably die here,” she said.