BARUGO, LEYTE—The MV Doña Paz sank 25 years ago, but the scars on Zosimo de la Rama’s body always remind him of the pain and fear that he endured swimming in flaming waters for hours before he was rescued.
De la Rama, 46, was one of the 26 people who survived the collision of the passenger ship Doña Paz and the oil tanker MT Vector that claimed more than 4,000 lives, the world’s worst maritime tragedy in peacetime.
“Whenever I see the scars on my body, I cannot help but recall that tragedy,” De la Rama said in an interview in his home at Barangay Minuhang, a farming village 1.5 kilometers from the town center.
“I thought it was the end of my life, but I held on to my faith, that God would help me survive that inferno,” he said.
It has been a quarter of a century, but De la Rama and the other survivors and the families of those who perished are still waiting for justice.
A class suit arising from the accident, which alleges negligence on the part of Caltex Philippines, charterer of the Vector, is dragging in a civil district court in the US state of Louisiana on a question of jurisdiction. It was filed in December 1988.
Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines Inc., which owned and operated the Doña Paz, has figured in four more maritime accidents that took hundreds of lives. In a bid to shake off its bad image, the company changed its name to Philippines Span Asia Carrier Corp. in 2010.
The Doña Paz tragedy and the maritime accidents that came after it have led to the introduction of legislation in Congress that would modernize the country’s shipping industry. Among the proposals is a new maritime code, but the bill is stalled because of other priority measures.
Ill-fated trip to Manila
On the night of Dec. 20, 1987, the 2,250-ton MV Doña Paz was sailing through Tablas Strait off Mindoro Oriental on its way to Manila on a trip that started from Tacloban, Leyte, carrying passengers who were trying to get home for the Christmas holidays.
Its manifest listed 1,493 passengers and a 53-member crew, but survivor accounts showed that the vessel was carrying more than 4,000 passengers—more than twice its declared capacity of 1,518 passengers and 60 crew members.
De la Rama, 21 years old at the time, and his sister-in-law, Sally Alipio, were among the passengers whose names did not appear on the manifest because they boarded the vessel at the last minute.
They had been booked on the MV Tacloban, but the ferry that they took in Barugo called at Catbalogan port in Samar before proceeding to Tacloban. They missed Tacloban and had to take the Doña Paz, which left the city on Dec. 19.
Sailing through the strait was the 629-ton, steel-hulled Vector, which was transporting 9,000 barrels of fuel products from Bataan to Masbate. The vessel had a 13-member crew.
Despite a clear night and fine weather, the two vessels crossed paths at around 10:30 p.m. at Dumali Point, off the coast of Mindoro Oriental, with the Vector ramming the port side of the Doña Paz, setting off a fiery explosion.
De la Rama remembered being stepped on several times as he crawled to the ship’s railings. He said he was shocked when he saw the water was also in flames. But he did not want to go down with the sinking ship, and decided to jump.
“The whole place was burning. I heard cries for help. And I kept saying, ‘God, God, why is this happening?’ and I imagined Satan laughing at all of us,” he said.
De la Rama swam for a floating log and clung to it. He had been in the water for eight hours when a Manila-bound passenger vessel, the MV Claudio, reached the site and picked him up.
Only 26 people were rescued, 24 passengers of Doña Paz, including De la Rama, and two crew members of the Vector.
De la Rama believes Alipio died in the accident. Her body was never found.
An investigation by the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) followed, and in March 1988, the board found against the Vector’s operator and owner, Francisco Soriano and Vector Shipping Corp. The board found that the company had no license to operate the vessel and that the crew was unqualified to run the tanker.
Sulpicio Lines was absolved of any liability for the accident.
The Senate and the House of Representatives conducted separate inquiries into the accident, with each body finding shortcomings on the part of both the Doña Paz and the Vector, and exposing dangerous flaws in the Philippine maritime industry.
Sulpicio Lines offered the survivors and the relatives of the dead and missing P30,000 in compensation, but in exchange for their agreeing not to sue the company.
The relatives rejected the pittance and filed lawsuits against both Sulpicio Lines and Caltex Philippines.
A group of survivors and relatives brought a class suit against Caltex and its parent company and affiliate companies in Texas and in Louisiana, alleging negligence in chartering the Vector, which had been found liable for the accident.
The Texas suit was dismissed after a few years, but the suit filed in December 1988 in the Civil District Court for the Orleans Parish in Louisiana remains unresolved.
The other defendants include Steamship Mutual, which had provided passenger liability insurance for the Doña Paz, Vector Shipping Corp. and Sulpicio Lines.
The families of some of the victims mounted legal actions on their own.
In 1999 the Supreme Court First Division ordered Sulpicio Lines to pay the family of two victims—47-year-old public school teacher Sebastian Cañezal and his 11-year-old daughter Corazon—P1.2 million in moral and exemplary damages, lawyer’s fees and the lost future earnings.
The court also held Vector Shipping and Soriano liable and ordered them to reimburse Sulpicio Lines Inc. whatever damages, lawyers’ fees and costs the company was ordered to pay to the Cañezals.
The court also ruled that Caltex, as a charterer of the Vector, had no liability for damages under Philippine maritime laws.
In another case, the Court of Appeals in 2006 affirmed a lower court ruling that ordered Sulpicio Lines to pay P14.9 million to the family of geodetic engineer Maximo Lorenzo Jr., another victim of the tragedy. The amount included compensatory damages for lost earnings, legal fees and death indemnity.
The most recent ruling involving the tragedy was handed down in July 2008. The Supreme Court Third Division found Vector Shipping liable and ordered it to reimburse Sulpicio Lines for damages worth P800,000 that the shipping company had been ordered to pay the family of spouses Cornelio and Anacleta Macasa and their 8-year-old grandson Ritchie who perished in the accident.
The Supreme Court ruling also took judicial notice of its 1999 decision exonerating Caltex from any third-party liability.
The slow judicial process frustrated other families and they decided to accept small sums in out-of-court settlements.
Following the Doña Paz tragedy, four vessels of Sulpicio Lines went down, further marring its reputation.
The MV Doña Marilyn sank in October 1988, claiming 150 lives; the MV Boholana Princess went down in December 1990 but no casualties were reported; the MV Princess of the Orient sank in September 1998, costing 150 lives; and the MV Princess of the Stars sank in June 2008, leaving 800 people dead or missing.
The Princess of the Stars tragedy compelled the government to ground the entire fleet of Sulpicio Lines, but later limited the freeze to only some of the company’s vessels. With a report from Lawrence de Guzman, Inquirer Research.Sources: Inquirer Archives; donapaz.com; Supreme Court