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Witness: Ships Quickly Sank In Massive Fireball After Colliding

December 28, 1987

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ A 10-story fireball engulfed the ferry and tanker that collided and sank last week, both apparently without time to radio for help, the captain of the first ship to reach the scene testified Monday.

Capt. Melecio Barranco told a public inquiry that the flames were so massive that even with binoculars, he could not distinguish the 2,215-ton inter-island ferry Dona Paz or the 629-ton oil-laden tanker Victor.

The Dec. 20 tragedy in the Tablas Straits off Mindoro island was the century’s worst ever peacetime disaster at sea, killing at least 1,600 people, although no one knows exactly how many people were aboard to Dona Paz.

Barranco told the five-member coast guard Board of Marine Inquiry he was steaming for Manila aboard the ferry Don Claudio at 10:30 p.m. when a lookout saw fire and thick smoke eight miles away.

He said his ship reached the site 110 miles southeast of Manila 45 minutes later and began rescuing survivors.

Barranco said the two vessels appeared on his radar screen as one, and he could not not see either of them through the fire, which was ″as big as a 10- story building.″

″At 12:10 a.m., a big ball of flame shot up into the sky,″ he said. ″When the flames subsided, the object on the radar screen was gone.″

By then all of the 26 known survivors had been rescued: 24 Don Paz passengers and two of the tanker’s 13 crew members.

Barranco said his ship and at least four other vessels that apparently responded to radio messages from the Don Claudio searched the area for two more hours but found nothing.

″All we saw were pieces of styrofoam,″ he added.

The captain said none of the 26 survivors had life jackets. The coast guard said only 133 bodies had been recovered.

Earlier, Vicente Gambito, vice president of the Sulpicio Lines Inc., owner of the Dona Paz, said he did not think the Dona Paz was able to send out any distress messages. Barranco said his radio operator had not picked up a distress signal from either ship.

On questioning from board members, Barranco said two tanker crewmen told him they were asleep when the collision occurred.

″They said that when they woke up, their ship was already on fire and they immediately jumped into the water,″ he said.

Coast guard officials said they have failed to locate either of the crewmen, who Barranco said suffered only minors burns.

An official of Dona Paz’ owner, Sulpicio Lines, said earlier that 1,583 passengers and 60 crewmen were listed on the ship’s manifest. Philippine passenger manifests do not include children and people who buy tickets aboard.

On questioning by board members and lawyers representing the victims, Sulpicio vice president Vicente Gambito said the Dona Paz had at least 1,562 passengers, 44 more than its authorized capacity of 1,518.

Capt. Dario Fajardo, chairman of the five-member board and deputy coast guard commander, said he will subpoena officials of Victor Shipping Corp., the reported owner of the tanker. The company has refused to make any statement since the disaster.

Update hourly