an extract from
Final Voyage
The World's Worst Maritime Disasters


The Himeyuri Maru was built in Hiroshima, Japan, and launched in April 1963. Just over 300ft (91.4m) long and 45ft (13.7m) across the beam, she could reach speeds of up to 18 knots. A 2,600-ton passenger ferry, she was capable of carrying about 600 people. In 1975 her owners Onomichi Zosen sold her to Sulpicio Lines in the Philippines. They renamed her the Don Sulpicio, and increased the passenger capacity to nearly 1,500. After a fire in 1981, Sulpicio Lines refitted the ship and gave her another new name: the Doña Paz. She went on to suffer the worst maritime disaster in living memory.

Twice a week the Doña Paz travelled the route from Tacloban City to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, nearly 400 miles away. At around 6.30am on 20th December 1987 she left Tacloban with, according to official records, a full complement of 1,493 passengers. In truth, she was probably carrying three times as many. This was the Doña Paz's last trip before Christmas, and thousands of people wanted to reach loved ones in Manila for the holiday. Entire families travelled together. While the shipping line only had a finite number of tickets, the Doña Paz didn't stop taking passengers on board until it was standing room only.

At about 8pm the day before, the oil tanker MT Vector had left Limay, Bataan, en route to Masbate, over 200 miles away. She carried a cargo of 8,800 barrels of gasoline, diesel and kerosene. Her operation licence had expired and her master was not properly qualified. She didn't even have a proper lookout on board.

By 10.30pm on the 20th, most of the passengers on the Doña Paz who could sleep were doing so. The ship being so overcrowded, people slept several to a single cot. Some of those without a bed slept in the open air. Throughout the ship's three decks people filled the corridors. Some had brought mats to sit or lie on because they knew how packed the ship would be. It was difficult to move around, but most didn't need to. They expected to arrive at Manila's port in the early hours of the next morning, ready to meet their waiting relatives.

Meanwhile on the bridge of the Doña Paz a lone apprentice crewmember monitored the ship's progress. Other officers took advantage of the benign summer sailing conditions to sit down with a beer and watch some television. The captain was watching a video.

Nobody who witnessed the collision survived to explain to investigators how it happened. None of the Doña Paz's 60 crew were rescued, and the only two survivors from the Vector both claimed to have been asleep at the time. At around 10.30pm both ships passed Dumali Point on the Tablas Strait. Given their respective courses (the Vector heading eastward, the Doña Paz heading north), and the fact that the Vector's hull suffered such a catastrophic breach, it is more than likely that the Doña Paz struck the starboard side of the Vector with her bow. This does not mean the Doña Pa was necessarily at fault, however, because whilst there are no 'right of way' laws of the sea, it is generally accepted that the vessel on the left (the Vector in this case) should give way.


Several thousand sleeping passengers on board the Doña Paz awoke in a panic. On the lower decks of the ship nobody knew what had happened, but the impact felt and sounded like an explosion. Two things happened in quick succession which ensured most of the people on board both the Doña Paz and the Vector would not get off the ships alive: the Doña Paz suffered a power failure that plunged the ferry into darkness, and the Vector's ruptured hull began to leak copious quantities of burning oil into the waters around both vessels.

The few survivors who made it out from the lower decks of the Doña Paz reported the chaos fuelled by terror as thousands of people in the hopelessly overcrowded belly of the ship tried to find a way up and out in complete darkness. Nobody could see anything, and nobody could give instructions to the surge of people trying to push in every direction at once because of the constant screaming. Not that the crew of the Doña Paz co-ordinated an evacuation. None of the survivors saw or heard any crewmembers giving orders to help people escape. The lockers containing lifejackets remained locked - a precaution previously intended to prevent them from being stolen. Invariably there weren't enough for everyone on board, anyway.

Those from below who made it up to the top deck discovered the true horror of the unfolding disaster. No lifeboats were being launched. It was impossible to do so. Whilst the fire probably started on the Vector, the oil slick had now spread so far so quickly that it looked like the sea itself was aflame. The fire had spread on to the Doña Paz and her wooden lifeboats could not be launched into the burning waters below.

Though oil tankers like the Vector had been designed so that their cargo holds would not explode, the ship had become a raging inferno. Flames spread rapidly through the Doña Paz too. Her lower decks, where thousands were already trapped by darkness, filled with smoke. Those who still managed to escape from below recalled not being able to see anything but flames. They may have put it down to God's mercy that they survived, but luck certainly played a part. There were no means to fight a major fire aboard the Doña Paz, least of all an oil-based fire that spread as quickly as fuel spilled.

Only 24 people on board the Doña Paz when she collided with the Vector survived, and most of them suffered horrific burns. With the lifeboats unusable, fire spreading quickly through the ship and no rescue vessels forthcoming, there was only one way off the Doña Paz. All of those who survived the disaster jumped off the ship and into the burning waters. Hundreds of people attempted it. Most failed. Not only did they have to survive the leap through the flames but they then had to hold their breath long enough to swim under the burning oil slick on the surface. A point came when the burning oil had spread so far that it was impossible for anyone to swim far enough without needing to come up for air. Those who managed it were heavily outnumbered by the charred bodies of those who hadn't.


The Doña Paz sank in 1,800ft (550m) of water at around 12.30am, roughly two hours after the collision, and the Vector went down a further two hours after that. It wasn't until after 6am that morning, when the Doña Paz was now several hours overdue in Manila, that the Filipino maritime authorities learned of the disaster. It took yet another eight hours for a proper search and rescue operation to be launched, by which time it was mostly too late anyway.

Other vessels in the vicinity of the Tablas Strait responded to the distress calls from the stricken ships, but these small merchant vessels would have been even less capable of tackling the inferno than the crews of the Doña Paz and the Vector themselves. Arriving on the scene as the ships sank, the merchant ships pulled 26 survivors from the water: the two crewmen from the Vector who had slept through the collision, and the 24 passengers who had survived jumping from the decks of the Doña Paz. Another passenger ship, the Don Eusebio, which would have been big enough to take on board a large number of survivors, circled the area for seven hours, but found nobody else alive.

Officially the death toll of the Doña Paz's sinking still stands at 1,749. Initially the shipping line maintained the ship's manifest was accurate, and that there were only 1,493 passengers and 60 crew aboard when she collided with the Vector. However, it quickly became apparent that there were many people unaccounted for, not least young children, who had not been listed on the manifest at all.

Even the generally accepted figure of 4,375 deaths remains an estimate. Investigators came to this number based on the claims of those who reported they had friends or family members sailing from Tacloban to Manila on board the Doña Paz. Of course, this figure would not necessarily include those who were travelling with their entire family, or alone, or who had not told anyone where, when and how they were going.

Only 270 bodies washed up on the shores of the Tablas Strait. While the Strait is notorious for being rife with man-eating hammerhead sharks, there are no confirmed reports of either survivors or corpses being attacked, despite the popular theory. The more likely reason why so few bodies were recovered is because the rest went down with the ship. Most people probably died trapped in the dark, overcrowded lower decks of the Doña Paz, overcome either by smoke or flames, and unable to make it up top to try and jump and swim to survive.

The true number killed aboard the Doña Paz will never be known and may in fact be considerably higher than the 4,375 estimate. After all, of the 21 bodies picked up in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, only one person was identified as having been on the official manifest.

Extracted from Final Voyage: The World's Worst Maritime Disasters published by Adlard Coles Nautical, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing (c) Jonathan Eyers 2013

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