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URGENT Ferry That Sank in Philippines Was Operated By Apprentice

December 24, 1987

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The coast guard said Thursday that an apprentice was operating the Dona Paz when the passenger ferry collided with an oil tanker and sank in the century’s worst peacetime sea disaster.

The ferry’s chief mate and third mate were drinking beer and the captain was watching a video shortly before the 10 p.m. collision, the coast guard said.

Lt. Cmdr. Cipriano Luspo, a coast guard spokesman, said the report was based on an interview with one of the 26 survivors. He declined to identify the survivor.

Last Monday, survivor Samuel Carillo told The Associated Press that just before accident he in the captain’s cabin and turned down an invitation from the captain to watch a video.

It was not immediately possible to obtain comment from the company that owned the Dona Paz, Sulpicio Shipping Lines, because it was closed for Christmas.

Only 26 of the more than 1,600 people believed aboard the 2,215-ton Dona Paz and the 629-ton oil tanker Victor have been rescued since the fiery collision Sunday night off Mindoro island. The Victor also sank.

The coast guard said 242 bodies were recovered, and officials said hundreds more may be trapped in a watery grave aboard the Dona Paz, which sank in 1,788 feet, of water in the shark-infested Tablas Straits in the central Philippines.

Bodies were recovered throuhout the day Thursday. When the day began, the coast guard said it had only recovered 154 bodies.

″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,″ the guard’s Commodore Carlito Cunanan said.

The coast guard issued a statment saying that investigators had received reports that the three top officers had turned the ship’s operation over to an apprentice mate who was alone on the bridge at the time of the collision.

None of the Dona Paz crew were among those so far rescued.

Cunanan said it was still unclear how many people were aboard the Dona Paz.

The ship’s owners, Sulpicio Shipping Lines, says records showed a total of 1,583 passengers boarded in Tacloban City and Catbalogan along with a crew of 60. The Victor carried a 13-man crew, two of whom were among the 26 rescued.

Earlier, an official warned that bodies washing ashore from the accident could cause an epidemic on Mindoro island.

″The search for more bodies is still continuing,″ said Capt. Antonio Babijes, chief of the Rescue Coordination Center. ″But rescuers are already complaining that some decomposing bodies are too foul-smelling and they are in a quandry as to how they are going to dispose of the bodies. They are hurrying up to prevent an outbreak of an epidemic in the area.″

Rescue officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some bodies may have been buried on Mindoro beaches by local residents fearful of an epidemic.

A policeman on Mindoro said a 4-year-old boy found floating on a piece of timber Tuesday was not from the ferry, as reported by government radio operators earlier.

Tech. Sgt. Victor Yap told The Associated Press by radio-telephone from Pinamalaya the boy was hurt during an outing with his father, who put him on a piece of wood to float him to shore.

Yap attributed the reporting error to ″confusion.″

The Board of Marine Inquiry was scheduled to begin hearings into the disaster on Monday. Ramon Mitra, speaker of the House of Representatives, said Congress will conduct its own investigation.

″Maybe we ought to look into the agencies which are concerned with the implementation of these (maritime safety) laws,″ he said. ″If they are doing their job, this would not have happened.″

President Corazon Aquino has ordered a full investigation.

Ferries are the only means of transport among the archipelago’s 7,100 islands for poor Filipinos who cannot afford air fares.

Reinerio Reyes, transportation secretary, said Tuesday his department’s initial investigation showed the ferry was overloaded. Eusebio Go, executive vice president of Sulpicio, denied it.

There has been no official explanation why the two vessels collided in clear weather and calm seas in a shipping lane off Mindoro’s Dumali Point.

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