The Philippines Off Mindoro, a Night to Remember

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At about 10 o'clock on a moonless night, the grungy 2,215-ton ferry Dona Paz coursed through the choppy waters of the Tablas Strait, some 110 miles south of Manila. The people who crammed the decks on makeshift cots and slept three or four to a bed were scheduled to be in the capital by morning, and the air was filled with anticipation. Young women from the impoverished island of Samar talked excitedly about finding jobs as maids in Manila homes. Mothers and fathers tucked their children into bed and chatted about the relatives and the sights they would soon see.

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Suddenly, without warning, the Victor, a Philippine tanker carrying 8,800 bbl. of petroleum products, collided with the Dona Paz. Immediately, the tanker's cargo ignited, setting the sea aflame. As the inferno engulfed both ships, dozens of passengers leaped, diving deep to avoid the burning waters. Swimming beyond the fiery oil, Eugenio Orot, 27, surfaced hundreds of feet away from the ferry. As the anguished screams of children calling "Nanay!" (mother) and "Tatay!" (father) echoed around him, he searched desperately for his two children and wife, but to no avail. Within four hours, the Dona Paz and the Victor were gone.

Ships in the area rescued 26 people from the shark-infested waters, but no more. It was the worst peacetime maritime disaster of the century, exceeding the record of the Titanic, which went down in 1912 with some 1,500 on board. The worst shipping calamity occurred during World War II, when a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Nazi transport Wilhelm Gustloff, killing an estimated 7,700. While more than 1,600 people, including eleven crewmen from the Victor, were presumed dead in last week's accident, the actual count was almost certainly higher. The names of as many as 1,000 children may not have been included on the ferry's manifest. Passengers who purchased tickets after boarding also may not have been listed in the roster. Some survivors claimed to have overheard members of the crew say there were more than 3,000 people on board.

The tragedy was not the first in the waters off the islands of Mindoro and Marinduque, among the busiest sea-lanes in the archipelago. Less than 40 miles from where the Dona Paz went down, the ferry Don Juan collided with an oil tanker in 1980. More than 100 drowned. Last week's disaster may have been caused by navigational errors -- or negligence. One survivor alleged that at the time of the collision the Dona Paz's captain was watching a video in his bunk and the first and third mates were drinking beer, leaving an inexperienced apprentice in charge of the bridge. The catastrophe was all the more painful because of the approaching holidays. Calling the accident a "national tragedy of harrowing proportions," President Corazon Aquino * ordered a full investigation and declared "strict sanctions must be imposed on all parties at fault." Unless Aquino pushes for a stricter law, the punishment promises to be mild: the government's Board of Marine Inquiry can levy fines of no more than $200.

With reporting by Nelly Sindayen/Manila

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