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Some Key Officers on Stricken Ferry Away from Posts

December 25, 1987

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Officers of the Dona Paz were watching TV or drinking beer when it and a tanker collided, ending a Christmas trip to Manila for 1,600 people with death in a fiery sea, the coast guard said Thursday.

A statement said an apprentice apparently was on the bridge alone, taking the inter-island ferry through the busy Tablas Strait off Mindoro Island, when the worst peacetime sea disaster of the century occurred Sunday night.

Only 24 passengers from the 2,215-ton ferry and two of 13 crewmen on the 629-ton tanker Victor were rescued after the collision and explosions turned the calm seas 110 miles south of Manila into a cauldron of fire.

Coast guard spokesmen said 242 bodies had been found by Thursday night and hundreds more may be trapped in the wreckage of the ferry, which sank in 1,800 feet of water.

The government Rescue Coordination Center said there was a risk of disease as decaying bodies wash ashore on Mindoro’s east coast.

Commodore Carlito Cunanan, coast guard commandant, told a news conference: ″We have received some disturbing news from our initial investigation, which shows that some of the ship’s officers were not in their places of duty when the incident happened.″

According to the coast guard statement, investigators were told the chief mate and third mate were drinking beer and the captain was watching a video tape just before the collision at 10 p.m.

Initial reports indicated an apprentice mate was on duty alone on the clear night. No members of the ferry crew were among those rescued.

Cunanan said the number of people on the ferry had not been determined. The owner, Sulpicio Shipping Lines, said its records showed 60 crew members and 1,583 passengers who boarded in Tacloban City and Catbalogan.

″Our initial finding does not seem to indicate a great number of people boarded the ship in excess of the manifested passengers,″ Cunanan said, ″but we do have a report that when the Coast Guard had cleared the vessel and had left the ship, many people jumped on board.″

Survivors said the ferry was packed with holiday travelers, with up to four people sharing individual cots on deck. Some reported hearing crewmen say more than 3,000 people were aboard.

Earlier, the coast guard said the ferry might have been carrying 2,200 people, but Cunanan said he thought the true figure was under 2,000.

Inter-island ferries are the only means of transport among the archipelago’s 7,100 islands for people who cannot afford air fares.

Coast guard commanders from Tacloban and Catbalogan have been ordered to Manila to testify at Board of Marine Inquiry hearings that begin Monday, Cunanan said.

He said up to 16 ships and three helicopters, two Philippine and one from the U.S. Navy, would extend the search up to 50 miles from the collision site to coastal areas of southern and southeastern Luzon, the main Philippine island.

Antonio Babijes, chief of the Rescue Coordination Center, said some bodies may have been eaten by sharks or swept away by strong currents.

″The search for more bodies is still continuing, although rescuers are already complaining that some decomposing bodies are too foul-smelling and they are in quandary as to how they are going to dispose of the bodies,″ Babijes said. ″They are hurrying up to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic in the area.″

Residents of Mindoro said fishermen had buried some bodies in the sand for fear of disease.

Coast guard officials said retrieved bodies were taken to Manila or Batangas City, 60 miles south of the capital, for identification.

Pacifico Oximoso, a coast guard petty officer working at Calapan on Mindoro island, said local authorities had run out of disinfectant for the bodies washing ashore. He said recovery operations were hampered by lack of boats and fuel.

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