Disaster and Collision

Five days before Christmas, on December 20, 1987, at 6:30pm, the MV Doña Paz would collide with the MT Vector, killing almost everyone onboard both ships. In order to understand the scale of this maritime tragedy, it is important to analyze the death toll. In comparison, the Titanic, which sunk on April 14, 1912 and killed 1,503 people, has achieved a famed status in both American and international spheres. The MV Doña Paz and MT Vector had a combined death toll of 4,342, exceeding that of the Titanic by 2,839 people. The tale of both ships is one of negligence, incompetence, and tragic failure.

The MV Doña Paz in 1984 at a Tacloban port (Phillipines), about 3 years before it sank
Scanned from Kodacolor negative film

Capitan Eusebio Nazareno was at the helm of the MV Doña Paz when it sank. He died in the accident. The vessel was set to arrive in Manila at 4:00am on December 21. Unfortunately, the majority of the passengers were asleep which contributed to the tragically high casualty rate.

An aerial photo of The MV Doña Paz. Note lifeboats on the upper deck. Tragically, these lifeboats were never deployed.
An aerial photo of The MV Doña Paz. Note lifeboats on the upper deck. Tragically, these lifeboats were never deployed.
Aerial view of Marinduque Island
The location of the wrecks of the MV Doña Paz and MT Vector. 13°06’23.0″N 121°55’39.0″E

According to survivors, the sea was choppy but the skies were clear. As the fire began to spread along the surface of the sea, it ignited oil that had made its way onboard the MV Doña Paz, catching the deck on fire. The lights had gone out after the collision, which made it difficult for the passengers to make their way out of the lower decks. The crew panicked along with the passengers and made no attempt to save anyone but themselves. Those who were still alive, and had managed to make their way to an upper deck were forced to jump off of the ship into flaming waters among charred bodies and debris. The MV Doña Paz sank within two hours, and the MT Vector sank within four.

26 people survived the crash – 2 from the MT Vector and 24 from the MV Doña Paz. None of the crew of the Doña Paz survived. The MS Don Claudio, another ship passing by, saved all 26 survivors. Interestingly, a four year old and a fourteen year old miraculously survived the crash.

Illustration depicting the crash of the MT Vector and MV Doña Paz (Part 1 of 2)
Illustration depicting the crash of the MT Vector and MV Doña Paz (Part 2 of 2)

In the following investigation that occurred by the Philippine Marine Board of Inquiry of the Coast Guard, it was determined that the crew of the MT Vector acted negligently, drinking on the job and watching TV. Only a junior member of the crew was left at the helm. Survivors testified that the MV Doña Paz was severely overloaded with passengers, with some sleeping in corridors, or three or four people sleeping on one bunk. This was a result of passengers being sold duplicate tickets. According to Sulpicio Lines (Renamed recently to the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation or PSAAC), the company that owned and operated the MV Doña Paz, it was capable of supporting 1,424 passengers.

The high casualty total (4,342) can be attributed to a variety of factors, including negligence on the part of the staff of both ships, the fact that the life vests were locked away, that the lifeboats were never deployed, that most of the passengers on the MV Doña Paz were asleep, and numerous other factors, such as the oil spill from the MT Vector catching on fire.

“The scene of the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history — known as “Asia’s Titanic” — has been surveyed by the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel, the exploration ship owned and operated by the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. R/V Petrel worked in partnership with the National Museum of the Philippines to examine the site of the M/V Doña Paz and M/T Vector in Tablas Strait in April [of 2019].”

After the insurance payout to Sulpicio Lines, the families of each survivor received the equivalent of today’s $620 USD for each family member they had lost.

Sulpicio Lines continues to operate under their new name, PSACC.

Caltex Philippines, a subsidiary of Chevron Corporation, was cleared of financial liability, despite having been operating the MT Vector without a license, lookout, or qualified master.

The sinking of the MV Doña Paz remains the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in recorded history.

Works Cited

“1,500 ARE FEARED LOST as 2 SHIPS COLLIDE and SINK near PHILIPPINES (Published 1987).” New York Times, 21 Dec. 1987, www.nytimes.com/1987/12/21/world/1500-are-feared-lost-as-2-ships-collide-and-sink-near-philippines.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2024.

Bridge, Lindsay. “Built in 1963 MV Dona Paz Passenger Ferry Sank on 20 December 1987 When Collided with MT Vector, Considered the Worst Philippines Inter-Island Shipping Accident through Loss of over 4000 Lives. R.I.P.. Photo Taken in Tacloban City, Eastern Visayas, Philippines,” Flickr, 4 Dec. 2009, www.flickr.com/photos/intervene/3208074196/sizes/l/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

“G.R. No. 131166.” Lawphil.net, 30 Sept. 1999, lawphil.net/judjuris/juri1999/sep1999/gr_131166_1999.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2024.

Hitosis, Ralph Lauren. “The MV Doña Paz: The Disaster Deadlier than Titanic.” Medium, 16 July 2023, medium.com/@hitosisralph.work/the-mv-do%C3%B1a-paz-the-disaster-deadlier-than-titanic-b3e9a1c02c87.

Lettens, Jan. “Untitled,” Wrecksite, 20 Dec. 2011, www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?59165. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

Lettens, Jan, and Allen Tony. “MV Doña Paz.” Wrecksite, 27 July 2008, www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?59165. Accessed 6 Mar. 2024.

Obligacion, Eli J. “Marinduque Rising: Matinding Record Baya (Part 4): Bombahan Nadagdagan Pa; Mga Banggaan; Binasag Pa Ang World Record!” Marinduque Rising, 30 July 2017, marinduquegov.blogspot.com/2017/07/matinding-record-baya-part-4-bombahan.html. Accessed 9 Mar. 2024.

Schlosser, Kurt. “Paul Allen’s Research Vessel Surveys Wreckage of “Asia’s Titanic” — 1987 Ferry Sinking Killed 4,300.” GeekWire, 19 Dec. 2019, www.geekwire.com/2019/paul-allens-research-vessel-surveys-wreckage-asias-titanic-1987-ferry-sinking-killed-4300/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2024.

“The Philippines off Mindoro, a Night to Remember – TIME.” Web.archive.org, 9 Dec. 2007, web.archive.org/web/20071209182552/www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0%2C9171%2C966394%2C00.html.