MANILA — The Philippine ferry Dona Paz, which collided with an oil tanker last week, killing an estimated 1,600 people, was safe and not overloaded with passengers, a shipping company official told a board of inquiry Monday.
"The boat had a permit from the Maritime Industry Authority. It was safe," said Vicente Gambito, vice president of Sulpicio Lines, which owned the ferry. He also said the ship was not carrying more passengers than its listed capacity of about 1,600.
Gambito, the first to appear before the five-member coast guard Board of Marine Inquiry, did not present evidence to back his statements.
The Dec. 20 tragedy in the Tablas Strait off Mindoro island was the century's worst peacetime disaster at sea.
Gambito told the board that the ferry apparently did not have time to radio for help before it sank after a fiery collision with the 629-ton oil-laden tanker Victor.
The captain of the first ship to reach the scene also testified that neither vessel apparently had time to send a distress call. Capt. Melecio Barranco said his radio operator never picked up a call from either the 2,215-ton inter-island ferry or the tanker.
Sighted 8 Miles Away
Barranco told the board that 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, about 45 minutes later and began rescuing survivors.
The captain said the two vessels appeared on his radar screen as one, and he could not not see either one through the blaze, which he termed "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, the 26 known survivors had been rescued: 24 Dona Paz passengers and two of the tanker's 13 crew members. The captain said none of the survivors had life jackets.
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.
'Pieces of Styrofoam'
"All we saw were pieces of Styrofoam," he added.
Gambito, the first witness to appear before the board, also denied that shipping employees illegally sold boat tickets to passengers. The practice reportedly is common in the island-dotted archipelago, where ships are a frequent means of transport.
On questioning from board members, Capt. Barranco said the two rescued tanker crew members 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 crew members, who Barranco said suffered only minor burns.
Capt. Dario Fajardo, chairman of the board and deputy coast guard commander, said he will subpoena officials of Victor Shipping Corp., the reported owner of the tanker.