A Night To Forget
There was no premonition among those who bade their goodbyes that the ship's voyage was going to be it's last. The ocean was calm and no trouble was expected; so no one worried that there were too few lifeboats for all the passengers aboard ship. Few would have guessed that the ship was sailing towards a fatal collision that would mark the greatest peacetime sea disaster in history.
The vessel of course, was not the RMS Titanic, but the MV Dona Paz. The what? The MV Dona Paz. A ship whose loss on December 20, 1987 killed nearly three times as many as the famous Titanic.
One thousand five hundred and seventeen people died on that fateful Night to Remember on April 15, 1912. The events on that glamorous transatlantic greyhound, with its manifest of the rich and famous, have been memoralized in stage, print and film. But while the Dona Paz disaster eclipsed the Titanic by every measure of human tragedy practically no one remembers it . The four thousand three hundred and seventy five poor people who went to their deaths that night in the Tablas Straits, crammed into the rusty and asthmatic 2,215 ton ferry, were forgotten almost immediately.
A few contemporaneous accounts suggest what life was like aboard the Dona Paz that night. But just as the Titanic was a microcosm of Edwardian society, in all its contrasts, the final moments of the Dona Paz were a reflection of what Greg Bankoff called the Culture of Disaster, a mode of thinking in which physical causality is absent; where there is no relationsip between the prior and the subsequent; and where all occurrences arise from the operations of luck or the will of God. A contemporaneous Time Magazine article describes the atmosphere aboard the doomed ferry.
At about 10 o'clock on a moonless night, the grungy 2,215-ton ferry Dona Paz coursed through the choppy waters of the Tablas Strait, some 110 miles south of Manila. The people who crammed the decks on makeshift cots and slept three or four to a bed were scheduled to be in the capital by morning, and the air was filled with anticipation. Young women from the impoverished island of Samar talked excitedly about finding jobs as maids in Manila homes. Mothers and fathers tucked their children into bed and chatted about the relatives and the sights they would soon see.
As death in the form of a small tanker, the MT Vector, loaded with 8,800 barrels of gasoline, rushed at the Dona Paz from the opposite direction its crew was in a similarly fatalistic condition. A subsequent investigation showed that practically nobody was minding the store on either vessel as they collided with terrifying results. The New York Times reported:
The coast guard said today that its initial inquiry indicated that some of the officers of the ferry Dona Paz were watching television or drinking beer when she collided with an oil tanker, killing at least 1,600 people.
Later it was determined that far more than 1,600 died that night. The Dona Paz was packed full of passengers who had been admitted after the manifest had been closed. The crew of the tanker were not much better qualified. "An inquiry later revealed that the crew of the Vector was underqualified and that the boat's license had expired. ... the two survivors from MT Vector claimed that they were sleeping at the time of the incident." It was almost as if the crew on both ships simply pointed their vessels in the general direction of their destinations and left the subsequent management of affairs to Divine Providence. The entire ethos is summed up in the one indispensible Filipino phrase: bahala na, translated as "Let the future be. Fate will take care of it all."
The loss of the Titanic, operating on the Western mind, stimulated the establishment of the International Ice Patrol and mandatory capacities for lifeboats. Except for wartime disasters like the Lusitania and the Wilhelm Gustloff, Western sea travel became permanently safer after the lessons of the Titanic were fully absorbed. But because of the absence of cause and effect in much of Filipino culture, the loss of Dona Paz had no effect upon the subsequent safety of Philippine maritime travel.
The International Herald Tribune has a depressing list of disasters which followed the Dona Paz. Of ships sailing in disregard of typhooon warnings, catching fire for no apparent reason, overturning while packed with children, or just vanishing beneath the waves. One disaster which a friend of mine personally witnessed but which has left no record on the Internet, involved an interisland vessel that sank while already tied up to the pier. The gangplanks were being lowered but the passengers in their eagerness to disembark rushed to one side so quickly their combined weight overwhelmed the freeboard of the vessel and caused the sea to pour into the main deck, sending her to Davy Jones' locker within an arms length of the dock. And the cause of the sinking? That would be bad luck or the Will of God.
Today more than 800 people are missing as a ferry sank after it sailed into teeth of the worst typhoon of the season. The Scotsman reports:
Sulpicio Lines, the owner of the MV Princess of Stars, put the number of people missing to 845 after discovering an extra 100 passengers on the ship's manifest. Only 28 people were last night reported to have survived the disaster and they said many did not make it off the ship in time. ... "Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," a survivor identified only as Jesse told local radio. "There was just one announcement over the megaphone, about 30 minutes before the ship tilted to its side.
Everything about the disaster, from the shambolic nature of the ship's manifest, the negligence of the Coastguard, the indifference to the weather report, the casual way in which the order to abandon ship was given -- one wonders why they bothered at all -- is redolent of the culture of disaster. Although some might be forgiven for imagining that there might be some correlation between seamanship, material condition, Philippine Coast Guard corruption, weather and ship sinkings -- that one might lead to the other -- those thoughts are alien to the Philippine bureaucracy. What will be uppermost in their minds is how the party will go on; how the bribes should continue. Those are the eternal things. And as to the perils of sea, well, bahala na. All memory of the MV Princess of Stars disaster, like that of MV Dona Paz, will leave as little trace upon Philippine shipping practices as a thrown stone leaves upon the face of the waters. Eight hundred people, half the Titanic, gone. Just like that.
A reader recently returned from Iraq emails:
In his book, The Ends of the Earth, Robert Kaplan was traveling through Mexico and made the observation that basic maintenance -- paint, picking up the trash, etc -- is a sign of a belief in the future. I thought about that a lot in Iraq.
Also, I've encountered phrases in two very different contexts now that both have the same flavor: that of divine intervention, or fate, or a negative sort of destiny.
The first is Japanese: "shikata ga nai", sometime abbreviated as "Sho ga nai" means literally, "there's no way of doing it" and actually means "oh, well, what can you do?" Essentially, that's the way the cookie crumbles, though it can refer to things in either the past or the future.
And in Arabic of course, we have "insha'allah". One of my translators would get frustrated with us, noting that when Americans would say this to Arabs, we really meant "we'll see" as a way of brushing them off, or putting off a decision, whereas when they said it to us, they really meant "god willing" or "if god wills it."
It's amazing that two cultures so different should both have expressions that could be used almost interchangeably for this purpose. One of the Staff Sergeants I worked with upon my arrival shocked me when, in conversation with locals, he would twist the phrase and insert his own name: "insha'william". I was worried he would offend. But after several months, I did it a couple of times too, when someone was questioning my own ability to do something.
It's all a way of wringing your hands, isn't it? "insha'allah" or "Sho ga nai." It flies against what I was taught as an infantry officer: no matter what, IMPOSE YOUR F***ING WILL.
I think that's the key difference in cultures of disaster -- for whatever reason there is a lack of a belief in a future, and an abrogation of the responsibility to change.
Philosophers would perhaps claim this to be the key innovation of the West: reason, and its handmaiden science, can improve life such that people inherently believe in progress.
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