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Search for 1,500 Filipinos Finds Only Empty Sea

December 22, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — The Philippine coast guard resumed its air-sea search this morning for survivors of the country's worst shipping disaster, the collision of an inter-island ferry and an oil tanker believed to have taken at least 1,500 lives.

Searchers held out little hope. Twenty-four passengers of the ferry Dona Paz and two crewmen of the tanker Victor were pulled from the waters 110 miles south of Manila shortly after the ships collided, burned and sank in 1,800 feet of water late Sunday night. A search Monday found no others, not even bodies.

"We covered about 100 miles of sea area, and except for maybe a piece of driftwood or two, we saw absolutely nothing as far as a shipwreck, oil spill, signs of life or signs of an accident," Staff Sgt. Cliff Davis, a spotter on a U.S. Air Force search helicopter, told a wire service reporter after returning to Clark Air Base on Monday afternoon. "There was absolutely nothing."

Grim Evidence Likely

As the search resumed under overcast skies at dawn today, the prospect was for grim evidence at best. Said a coast guard spokesman Monday: "Bodies will normally sink and then they will float back up. In 24 hours, they could float or be washed ashore."

The ships went down in the 30-mile-wide Tablas Strait between the islands of Mindoro and Marinduque, a heavily used shipping lane. The only direct accounts of the disaster came from the handful of survivors and Melencio Barranco, skipper of the Don Claudio, another inter-island vessel that was the first ship to reach the scene.

Barranco said he saw a ball of flame about 10:45 p.m. Sunday. By the time the Don Claudio arrived, both the Dona Paz and the Victor were burning and flames covered the waters. The Dona Paz sank a little after midnight, he said, and the tanker about two hours later.

Barranco said his ship was soon joined by three others, but no other survivors were found.

"I have talked with the skippers of these vessels and they told me that they were not able to fish out any more survivors," he said.

All of those who escaped the inferno were brought to hospitals in Manila. One said most of the passengers aboard the Dona Paz were asleep when the collision occurred, and estimated that only about 150 were able get overboard before the flames swept the ship. Among them, survivors said, were several children, but none were picked up by the rescue ships and apparently either died of burns or by drowning.

"I saw floating bodies of children and old people in the water," said one of the survivors, Renato Asistorga, 19, from his hospital bed in Manila. "The rescuers did not pick them up anymore. They were too busy picking up those still alive."

Ferry Hit Amidships

The coast guard formed an investigation board Monday, but offered no immediate findings. According to survivor accounts, the tanker knifed into the ferry amidships and burst into flames. The fire quickly spread to the passenger ship.

Both ships had their running lights on, and the night was clear and the sea calm. No warning whistle was sounded before the collision.

As word of the disaster reached Manila, the destination of the Dona Paz, families of expected passengers coming here for the Christmas holiday flooded to the harbor for news. But the only passengers reaching port were the 26 aboard the Don Claudio, some severely burned. The youngest was 15, the oldest 44.

Their accounts of the holiday disaster, one of the worst civilian shipping accidents in history, described terror and panic.

'I Grabbed My Wife'

"I grabbed my wife and my four-year-old daughter and told them to jump," said Eugenio Orot, 27, who boarded the Dona Paz at Tacloban on the island of Leyte, where the voyage began. "But I lost my grip when I was hit in the chest by a piece of metal. I never saw them again."

Some passengers, facing the choice between flames and the sea, made the fatal choice to stay aboard.

Survivor Mario Leanda, 25, said he tried to pull his girlfriend with him as he jumped into the water, but she pulled back.

"I shouted and asked her to jump, but she was afraid," he told reporters.

Lutgardo Niedo, a corporal in the Philippine constabulary, who boarded the ferry at its second and last stop, at Catbalogan on the island of Samar, said: "I hear the sound of metal crashing, and when I looked up, the fire was spreading toward us from the tanker."

In Water for 2 Hours

Niedo said he jumped over the side of the three-decked Dona Paz and was in the water for two hours, constantly swimming to avoid burning oil patches.

Niedo and other passengers said that before the collision, the ferry was so crowded with travelers that there was little room to move about. People were sleeping four to a cot on the decks, said one survivor, and the passageways were filled with passengers, goats and other animals.

"No one could move around," said survivor Mabag Constancio, 21. "People were just sitting on the floor."

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