Editorial

Justice marooned

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Twenty-five years after the Doña Paz sea disaster, justice continues to elude nearly all of the 4,000 who died as well as their kin. Many of the bereaved families have pursued the tortuous path of legal remedy here and abroad, only to be frustrated again and again. There’s no end in sight in their journey, no closure. It’s as if justice for them has been marooned forever.

In a nation of spellbinding chronicles, the Doña Paz tragedy is disaster story, horror flick, magic realism, and never-ending saga rolled into one. It has been called the worst peacetime maritime disaster and often compared to the sinking of the Titanic. But while the 2,250-ton Doña Paz was a mere fourth of the size of the Titanic, its sinking was immeasurably worse, with more than 4,000 lives lost.

On the night of Dec. 20, 1987, the Doña Paz was sailing through Tablas Strait off Mindoro Oriental on its way to Manila on a voyage that started from Tacloban, Leyte. It was carrying passengers who were heading home for the yearend holidays. The manifest listed 1,493 passengers and 53 crew members. On the opposite direction was sailing the 629-ton, steel-hulled Vector, which was transporting nearly 9,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel and kerosene of Caltex Philippines from Bataan to Masbate. Despite clear weather and a brilliant night, the two vessels collided at 10:30 p.m. at Dumali Point, off the coast of Mindoro Oriental, setting off a fiery explosion.

Most of the passengers instinctively leapt into the sea without realizing it had been set on fire because of the Vector’s combustible cargo. All told, only 24 survived. It was through their accounts and the work of journalists that the full scale of the disaster was revealed: Contrary to the manifest, the Doña Paz was carrying more than 4,000 people, or more than double its passenger limit! But the ship’s owner, Sulpicio Lines, flatly denied that it was overcrowded.

Help came from a passing ship an hour and a half after the collision. The Coast Guard learned of the tragedy only after eight hours. The start of official search-and-rescue operations took just as long. Only 108 bodies were recovered, most of them charred beyond recognition.

In the following days, it was learned that the collision occurred even if the two vessels were moving at a very slow pace on a wide-open sea. Both vessels had plenty of time to maneuver and sail safely on, but the unthinkable happened. There was no radio communication: the Vector was found to have an expired VHF radio license, and the license of the Doña Paz was a fake. Perhaps worse, the Doña Paz crew was having a Christmas party, according to the survivors, making it likely that a lesser trained officer was steering the ship. No crew member lived to tell his side of the story.

An investigation by the Board of Marine Inquiry found that the Vector had no license to operate and that the crew was unqualified to run the tanker. Sulpicio Lines was absolved of liability. The Coast Guard didn’t seem to have been made accountable for allowing the overcrowding of the Doña Paz, or for its fake radio license.

Sulpicio Lines offered the survivors and the kin of the dead and missing P30,000 in compensation—but in exchange for their agreeing not to sue the company. The families rejected the pittance and filed lawsuits against Sulpicio Lines and Caltex Philippines. A group of survivors brought a class suit against Caltex and its parent company in the United States, but this was dismissed. Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court ruled favorably on the claims of individual families against Sulpicio Lines and the Vector owner. But these individual cases are few; the slow judicial process has generally frustrated most of the families so that they have since accepted out-of-court settlements.

(In the intervening years, Sulpicio Lines, which now has a new name, would be involved in similar cases, and the Coast Guard would claim innocence. The last time a Sulpicio vessel was involved in a mishap was in 2008, when the Princess of the Stars sank, leaving 800 people dead or missing. Authorities characteristically hemmed and hawed, announcing at first the grounding of the entire Sulpicio fleet, but later backtracking and saying only a few vessels would be held.)

A quarter of a century on, the memory of that terrifying night remains vivid, like a fire that refuses to die. It’s a disaster borne of capitalist greed, official ineptitude and appalling corruption. Belying its name, there’s no peace yet for the victims of the Doña Paz.

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