සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #97: ‘ආසියාවේ ටයිටැනික්’ ඛේදවාචකයට වසර 25යි

This week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala) is dedicated to the memory of the world’s worst peace-time maritime disaster in terms of lives lost.

No, it wasn’t the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a disaster that happened 75 later, on the other side of the planet – in Asia.

It is the sinking of the MV Doña Paz, off the coast of Dumali Point, Mindoro, in the Philippines on 20 December 1987. That night, the 2,215-ton passenger ferry sailed into infamy with a loss of over 4,000 lives – many of them burnt alive in an inferno at sea.

Nobody is certain exactly how many lives were lost — because many of them were not supposed to be on that overcrowded passenger ferry, sailing in clear tropical weather on an overnight journey.

For an English version of this info, see: Remembering Asia’s Titanic: The Doña Paz tragedy that killed over 4,000 in Dec 1987

Dona Paz tragedy - image from the survivor website

ටයිටැනික්! ගිලෙන්නට බැරි යයි එහි නිපැයුම්කරුවන් කියූ. එහෙත් මංගල චාරිකාවේදී ම පාවෙන මහ අයිස් කුට්ටියක ගැටී ගිලී ගිය සුඛෝපභෝගී මගී නෞකාව ගැන අප දන්නවා. මුළු ලෝකය ම කම්පා කළ ඒ ඛේදවාචකය සිදු වී සියවසක් පිරුණේ මේ වසරේ.

1912 අපේ‍්‍රල් 14/15 රාත‍්‍රියේ අනතුරට ලක් වන විට ටයිටැනික් නැවේ මඟීන් හා කාර්ය මණ්ඩලය 2,224ක් සිටියා. එහෙත් ජීවිතාරක්ෂක බෝට්ටු තිබුණේ එයින් අඩකට පමණයි. ඒ නිසාත්, ගිලෙන නැවේ ආපදා රේඩියෝ සංඥ අවට ගමන් කරමින් සිටි වෙනත් නැව් හරිහැටි ග‍්‍රහණය කර නොගත් නිසාත් ජීවිත 1,514ක් විනාශ වුණා.

මේ අනතුරෙන් පසු මගී ප‍්‍රවාහනය කරන සියලූ ම නෞකා හා බෝට්ටු සඳහා ජීවිතාරක්ෂක උපක‍්‍රම රැසක් හඳුන්වා දෙනු ලැබුවා. ලොව කොතැනක කුමන ආකාරයේ නැවක් වුවත් මේ ආරක්ෂිත පියවර ගනිමින් සේවක මණ්ඩලයේ හා මගීන්ගේ ආරක්ෂාව තහවුරු කළ යුතුයි. බොහෝ රටවල මේ සඳහා දේශීය නීති හා රෙගුලාසි තිබෙනවා. එමෙන්ම ජාත්‍යන්තර නාවුක නීති යටතේ ද පැහැදිලි නිර්දේශ හා දණ්ඩන තිබෙනවා. ඒ සියල්ල තිබියදීත් දියුණු වෙමින් පවතින රටවල කලින් කලට මහ මුහුදේ නාවුක අනතුරු ඇති වෙනවා.

ටයිටැනික් අනතුරටත් වඩා බිහිසුණු හා එමෙන් දෙගුණයකටත් වඩා ජීවිත හානි කළ, ඉතිහාසයේ මහා ම නෞකා අනතුර සිදු වී මේ මාසයට වසර 25ක් පිරෙනවා. ‘ආසියාවේ ටයිටැනික්’ ලෙස හඳුන්වන මේ අනතුර ගැන බහුතරයක් ආසියානුවන් පවා දන්නේ නැහැ. එයට හේතුවක් නම් ජාත්‍යන්තර මාධ්‍ය හා ජනප‍්‍රිය සංස්කෘතිය හරහා මේ අනතුර මහා ප‍්‍රවෘත්තියක් බවට පත් නොවීම.

මේ අනතුර සිදු වූයේ 1987 දෙසැම්බර් 20 වනදා පිලිපීනයේ. දුපත් 7,000කට අධික සංඛ්‍යාවක් ඇති කොදෙව් පෙළකින් සමන්විත පිලිපීනයේ ප‍්‍රධාන පෙළේ මගී ප‍්‍රවාහන ක‍්‍රමය වන්නේ දුපත් අතර ධාවනය වන මගී නෞකායි. මේවා හරියට අපේ දුර ධාවන බස් සේවා වගෙයි. නියමිත කාල සටහනට ගමන් කරන, මූලික පහසුකම් පමණක් ඇති මෙබඳු මගී නෞකා ඉංග‍්‍රීසියෙන් Passenger Ferries ලෙස හඳුන්වනවා. එරට විශාලත්වය නිසා සමහර විට දිනක් දෙකක් ගත වන නැව් ගමන් තිබෙනවා.

සියයට 90ක් කතෝලික ජනගහණයක් සිටින පිලිපීනයේ ලොකු ම උත්සවය නත්තලයි. 1987 නත්තලට දින පහකට පෙර ලෙයිට් (Leyte) දුපතේ සිට මැනිලා අගනුවරට එන්නට සිය ගණනක් සාමාන්‍ය පිලිපීනුවෝ දොඤ්ඤ පාස් (Doña Paz, DP) නම් ටොන් 2,215ක් බර මගී නැවට ගොඩ වුණා. හෙමින් යන මේ ගමනට පැය 24ක් ගත වනවා.

ළඟ එන නත්තල නිසා නැවේ ධාරිතාවට වඩා වැඩි ඉල්ලූමක් තිබුණා. අපේ බස් වගේ ම මේ රටේ නැව්වලත් දරා ගත හැකි සංඛ්‍යාවට වඩා මගීන් නංවා ගන්නවා. පවතින ආරක්ෂණ නීති බිඳ හෙළමින්, ටිකට් නොමැතිව අත යට මුදලට සිය ගණනක් මගීන් DP නැවට නංවා ගනු ලැබුවා. නිල මගී ලැයිස්තුවේ සිටියේ මගීන් 1,493ක් හා කාර්ය මණ්ඩලය 59ක් පමණයි. එහෙත් එදින නැව තුළ 4,000ක් පමණ සිටින්නට ඇතැයි අනුමාන කැරෙනවා. එයින් දහසක් පමණ ළාබාල දරුවන්.

MV Doña Paz in 1984, three years before its tragic end - Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons - lindsaybridge

පැය විසි හතරේ ගමන රැය තිස්සේ දිවෙන නිසා නැවේ මගීන් හැකි පමණින් රැය පහන් කරන්නට සූදානම් වුණා. මුහුද තරමක් රළු වූවත් කාලගුණය යහපත්ව තිබුණා. නැව මද වේගයෙන් ගමන් කරමින් සිටියා.

රාත‍්‍රී 10.30ට පමණ කිසිදු අනතුරු ඇඟවීමකින් තොරව එක් වර ම මේ මගී නෞකාව තවත් නැවක හැපුණා. විවෘත මුහුදේ නැව් දෙකක් ගැටීමට ඇති ඉඩ ඉතා අඩුයි. තම ගමන් මඟ ගැන නැවියන් අවට නැව්වලට රේඩියෝ මඟින් නිතිපතා දැනුවත් කළ යුතුයි.

DP නැවේ මහා අවාසනාවට එය ගැටුනේ MT Vector වෙක්ටර් නමැති තෙල් ප‍්‍රවාහනය කරන නැවක. එය කැල්ටෙක්ස් පිලිපීන සමාගමට අයත් පෙට‍්‍රල්, ඞීසල් හා භූමිතෙල් බැරල් 8,800ක් රැගෙන බටාන් සිට මස්බාතේ දක්වා යමින් සිටියා.

නැව් දෙක ගැටීමත් සමඟ ම වෙක්ටර් නැවේ තෙල් තොගයට ගිනි ඇවිළුණා. විනාඩි කිහිපයක් ඇතුළත ගින්න මගී නෞකාවටත් පැතිරුණා. ගැටුමෙන්, පිපිරීමෙන් හා ගින්නෙන් වික්ෂිප්ත වූ මගීන් මේ අත දුවන්නට ගත්තා.

මර බියෙන් ඇතැමුන් මුහුදට පැන්නත් ඔවුන්ට අත් වූයේ බියකරු ඉරණමක්. ඒ වන විට තෙල් කාන්දු වී මුහුද මත ඉසිරී ගොස් ගින්න ඒ මතුපිට ද පැතිර තිබුණා. මේ නිසා මුහුදත් ගිනි ජාලාවක්. මුහුදට පැන්න අයට දිගින් දිගට ම කිමිදෙමින් සිටිනු හැර හුස්මක් ගන්නටවත් මතුපිටට එන්නට නොහැකි වුණා.

ඉතා අවාසනාවන්ත ලෙසින් නැවේ සිටි අය හා නැවෙන් මුහුදට පැන්න බොහෝ දෙනා පිලිස්සී හෝ ගිලී මිය ගියා. හාර දහසකට අධික යැයි අනුමාන කෙරෙන මගී සංඛ්‍යාවෙන් අමාරුවෙන් පණ බේරා ගත්තේ 26 දෙනෙතු පමණයි. මේ මහා ඛේදවාචකය ගැන අප දන්නා සියල්ලට පදනම ඒ අයගේ සාක්ෂියි.

මේ අනතුර සිදු වන විට DP මගී නැව ගමන් කරමින් සිටියේ මින්දෝරා හා පනායි දුපත් දෙක අතර පිහිටි ටබ්ලාසි සමුද්‍ර සන්ධියේ. ඒ ප‍්‍රදේශයේ මුහුදේ ගැඹුර මීටර් 545ක් (අඩි 1,790) පමණ වනවා. ගැටුමෙන් පැය දෙකකට පමණ පසු DP නැවත් පැය හතරකට පසුව වෙක්ටර් තෙල් නැවත් මුළුමනින් මුහුදේ ගිලී ගියා.

දිවි ගලවා ගත් ටික දෙනා බේරා ගනු ලැබුවේ ගැටුම සිදු වී පැය එක හමාරකට පමණ පසු එතැනට අහම්බෙන් ආ තවත් නැවක් මගින්. ගිනිගත් මහ මුහුදේ දැවී ගිය මළ සිරුරු අතර මහත් ආයාසයෙන් පිහිනමින් සිටි ටික දෙනා මේ නැව විසින් බේරා ගත්තා. වෙරළාරක්ෂක සේනාව (Coastguard) මේ අනතුර ගැන දැන ගන්නා විට පසුවදාට එළි වී තිබුණා. ඒ වන විට සියල්ල සිදු වී හමාරයි!

නත්තලට අභිමුඛව සිදු වු මේ මහා අනතුරෙන් සමස්ත පිලිපීනය කම්පා වී ගියත් ඛේදවාචකයේ තවත් අදියර ගණනක් ඉතිරි වී තිබුණා. ඒවා දිග හැරුණේ අනතුර ගැන රාජ්‍ය පරීක්ෂණයක් හා අධිකරණ නඩු විභාගයක් ඇරඹුණු පසුවයි.

DP නැවේ අයිතිකරු සුල්පිචියෝ ලයින්ස් නැව් සමාගම තරයේ කියා සිටියේ නිල මගී ලේඛනයේ සිටි 1,493 දෙනා හැරෙන්නට කිසිවෙකු අනතුර අවස්ථාවේ ඒ නැවේ සිටි බවට “සාක්ෂි” නැති බවයි. එසේ ම නැව අධික ලෙස මගීන් පටවා ගත් බවට කෙරෙන ප‍්‍රකාශ ඔවුන් ප‍්‍රතික්ෂේප කළා. (බොහෝ මගීන් මුළුමනින් ම දැවී අළු වී ගිය නිසා අනතුර සිදු වූ අවට මුහුදෙන් සොයා ගත හැකි වූයේ මළසිරුරු 108ක් පමණයි. තවත් මළ සිරුරු ගණනාවක් අවට දුපත්වල වෙරළට ගසා ගෙන ගොස් හමු වුණා. බහුතරයක් මගීන් කිසිදු හෝඩුවාවක් ඉතිරි නොකර අතුරුදහන් වූවා.)

DP නැවේ සමස්ත කාර්ය මණ්ඩලය ම අනතුරෙන් මිය ගියා. මේ පසුබිම තුළ ඇත්තට ම සිදු වූයේ කුමක් ද යන්න ගැන නැව් සමාගම් දෙකේත්, පණ බේරා ගත් අයගේත් නීතිඥයන් වසර ගණනාවක් තිස්සේ තර්ක විතර්ක කළා.

අනතුර සිදු වන විට නැව් දෙක ම මඳ වේගයෙන් ගමන් කරමින් සිටි බවත්, කාලගුණය යහපත් වූ නිසා දුර පෙනීම හොඳින් තිබූ බවත් තහවුරු වුණා. වෙනත් නැව් හෝ බෝට්ටු නොතිබූ විවෘත මුහුදේ මෙතරම් ඉඩ තිබිය දී මේ නැව් දෙක ගැටුණේ නැවියන්ගේ දැඩි නොසැලකිල්ල නිසා බවට දිවි ගලවා ගත්තවුන්ගේ නීතිඥයන් අවධාරණය කළා.

එසේ ම තම ගමන් මාර්ගය ගැන හැම නැවක් ම ඪ්‍යත්‍ රේඩියෝ මඟින් අවට නැව්වලට දැනුම් දිය යුතුයි. DP නැවේ රේඩියෝ බලපත‍්‍රය හොර එකක් බවත්, වෙක්ටර් නැවේ රේඩියෝ බලපත‍්‍රය කල් ඉක්ම වූ එකක් බවත් හෙළි වුණා. අයථා මාර්ගයෙන් අනුමැතිය ලබා ගෙන ක‍්‍රියාත්මක වූ මේ නැව් දෙකේ හරිහැටි රේඩියෝ භාවිතයක් තිබී නැහැ.

අනතුර සිදු වූ සැන්දෑවේ DP නැවේ කාර්ය මණ්ඩලය සාදයක් පවත්වමින් සිටි බවට දිවි ගලවා ගත්තවුන් කියා සිටියා. මේ නිසා නැවේ සුක්කානම හැසිරවීම අත්දැකීම් අඩු කනිෂ්ඨ නාවුකයකුට පවරන්නට ඇත්දැයි සැකයක් මතු වුණා. එහෙත් එය තහවුරු කර ගන්නට කිසිවකු ඉතිරිව සිටියේ නැහැ.

වසර ගණනක් ගත වූ අධිකරණ විභාගයේ අවසන් නිගමනය වූයේ මේ අනතුරට සාධක ගණනාවක් හේතු වූ බවයි. දුෂණය හා වංචාව හරහා නීතිය හරිහැටි ක‍්‍රියාත්මක නොවීම, අඩු පුහුණුවක් ලද නැවියන් අධික ලෙස වෙහෙසී සිටීම, දුරස්ථ සන්නිවේදනය නොකිරීම හා අනතුරින් පසු උදව්වට පැමිණීමේ බරපතළ ප‍්‍රමාදයන් නිසා ජීවිත හානිය ඉතා වැඩි වූවා.

මියගිය අයගේ පවුල්වලට හා දිවි ගලවා ගත් අයට වන්දි ගෙවීම වසර 25ක් ගතවීත් තවම හරිහැටි සිදු වී නැහැ. නැව් හිමිකාර සමාගම් මෙන් ම තෙල් හිමි කැල්ටෙක්ස් සමාගමටත් එරෙහිව පිලිපීනයේත්, අමෙරිකාවේත් නඩු පවරනු ලැබුවා. එහෙත් නීතිඥ තර්ක විතර්කවලට ලක් වෙමින් මෙය තවමත් දික් ගැස්සෙනවා.

Asia's Titanic - NatGeo poster for 2009 film

2009දී මේ අනතුර ගැන http://natgeotv.com/asia/asias-titanic නම් ගවේෂණාත්මක වාර්තා චිත‍්‍රපටයක් නැෂනල් ජියෝග‍්‍රැෆික් නාලිකාව සඳහා නිපදවනු ලැබුවා. පිලිපීන ජාතික යෑම් ලරානාස් (Yam Laranas) අධ්‍යක්ෂණය කළ මේ චිත‍්‍රපටය් තොරතුරු ගවේෂණය හා සහාය නිෂ්පාදනය කළේ මගේ පිලිපීන මිතුරියක් වන බේබි රූත් විලරාමා (Baby Ruth Villarama).

ඇය මාස ගණනක් පුරා ඇය දිවි ගලවා ටික දෙනා මෙන් ම මියගිය අයගේ පවුල්වල ඥතීන් හමුවෙමින් සංවේදී ලෙසින් කථාබහ කරමින් තොරතුරු රැස් කළා. එය තම වෘත්තීය ජීවිතයේ ඉතා දුක්මුසු හා අභියෝගාත්මක අත්දැකීමක් බව ඇය කියනවා.

‘‘දශක දෙකකට වැඩි කාලයක් ගතවීත් මේ අයට ප‍්‍රීතිමත් නත්තලක් නම් යළි උදාවන්නේ නැහැ. හැම නත්තල් සමයක ම ඔවුන්ට ඒ අනතුරේ මතකයන් අළුත් වනවා. අනතුරෙන් පසු සිදු වූ අසාධාරණකම් හා එයින් මතු වූ අසරණකම ගැන ඔවුන් යළි යළිත් කම්පා වනවා,’’ ඇය කියනවා.

වාර්තා චිත‍්‍රපටය නිම කරන්නට වසර 3ක් ගත වුණා. එහි සියලූ කරුණු යළි යළිත් තහවුරු කරන්නට නිෂ්පාදන කණ්ඩායමට සිදු වුණේ නැව් හා තෙල් සමාගම්වල නීතිඥයන් මේ වාර්තාකරණය දැඩි විමසිල්ලෙන් බලා සිටි නිසයි.

‘‘වාර්තා චිත‍්‍රපටයක් සඳහා මොවුන්ගේ දුක හා කම්පනය රූගත කළ යුතු ද යන සදාචාරමය ප‍්‍රශ්නයට අප මුහුණ දුන්නා. එහෙත් මේ ආසියාවේ ටයිටැනික් ඛේදවාචකය ගැන හරි කථාව ලෝකයට කියන්නටත්, විපතට පත් වූවන්ට හා පවුල්වලට කවදා හෝ සාධාරණයක් ඉටු කිරීමට ගෙන යන අරගලයට දායක වන්නටත් අපට මහත් සේ ඕනෑ වුණා,’’ යැයි බේබි රූත් කියනවා.

ඇගේ අවසන් තක්සේරුව: ‘‘ටයිටැනික් නැවේ මඟීන් බහුතරයක් ධනවත් හා බලවත් උදවිය. එහෙත් දොඤ්ඤ පාස් නැවේ ගිය සියලූ දෙනා ම දුප්පත් අසරණ මිනිසුන්, ගැහැනුන් හා ළමයින්. ඔවුන් ගැන අපේ රටේ මාධ්‍ය හා බලධාරීන් පවා එතරම් උනන්දුවක් නැහැ. මේ ඓතිහාසික විසමතාව යම් තරමකට හෝ සමතුලිත කරන්නට Asia’s Titanic චිත‍්‍රපටය උපකාර වනු ඇතැයි අප පතනවා.’’

Watch the NatGeo film in full on Doña Paz survivors’ website

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Baby Ruth Villarama on researching and filming “Asia’s Titanic” for National Geographic

Asia's Titanic - NatGeo poster for 2009 film

How and where do you begin to tell the story of the biggest peace-time disaster at sea in modern times — where only 24 people survived and more than 4,000 perished within an hour or two?

That was the challenge that my Filipino filmmaker friend Baby Ruth Villarama and her colleagues faced, when they made an hour-long documentary, Asia’s Titanic, which National Geographic TV broadcast in mid 2009.

They came together to tell the world an under-reported and relatively less known story from their country: the tragic mid-sea accident that sank MV Dona Paz on the night of 20 December 1987.

Former television journalist and now an independent TV producer, Baby Ruth Villarama specialises in story research and documentary producing. Runs her own production company, Voyage Film, based in Manila but active across Asia.

Ruth was the researcher and assistant producer of Asia’s Titanic, directed by award-winning Filipino director Yam Laranas.

A few days ago, I asked Ruth for her own memories and reflections. This is what she shared with me, in her own words — the moving story behind the moving images creation:

With the Doña Paz story, sharing their memories was the most difficult part of covering it as the tragedy is something they’d rather not talk about – and, if possible, forget.

I spent a year ‘off-the-record’ understanding the holes in their memories. I felt I had to retrace the steps of these 4,000 souls and learn the relationship of man and the sea.

They’ve lost their children, parents and comrades on Christmas eve over a sea mishap – drowning and burning in the quiet water. We can only imagine the pain they went through.

The tragedy is the peak of memory they have left of their loved ones too, so every Christmas, some relatives of the dead gather together to live the lives their loved ones would have wanted to continue.

I joined that gathering for about three Christmases in between my research efforts. It was then that I began to understand the rabbit holes in each one of them — and the rabbit hole I had in me for not knowing my mother personally.

We started sharing pains and the “what-could-have-beens” of those lost memories. That was the connection they were looking for: to be able to speak of the pain to a stranger, or worst, to a group of filmmakers who would broadcast their story to millions of households around the globe.

This documentary was initiated not just to tell their story but to attempt to fill a hole of justice to the many casualties and their families.

It was through them that we were able to speak to the remaining living survivors. We became part of that annual gathering. Despite the requirements of the studio and my director to deliver deadlines, we tried my best to balance their readiness to speak. Good thing NatGeo was willing to wait 3 – 5 years in the timeline…

I remember visiting a survivor in his sleepy town in the province of Samar sometime in 2005. He owns a small sari-sari (convenient) store then. He said that it took him a year to speak again after the tragedy — and another year before he could eat properly because he couldn’t swallow soups and liquids right.

He never really set foot outside his island again – always fearing for fire and water, including the air as he vividly remembers how it added fume to the fire on that fateful night at sea.

After a while, he started talking about the details of that trip. He stopped, wept and couldn’t carry on anymore. He couldn’t breathe and seemingly battled against the air.

A huge part of me personally felt wrong seeing him again but I know that if we do not tell this story, no one will — and the world will just forget about this huge ‘mistake’ in navigational history.

I’d like to think that the impact of the story outside the Philippines is to remind the world fact that Titanic is not the worst maritime disaster — that somewhere in South East Asia, there was a small ship that killed more than 4,000 lives. It created maritime talks in international forums and the fact that accidents in this magnitude didn’t occur anymore — I think people are more careful now.

It’s a shame that Doña Paz was not as celebrated as the Titanic. One big difference between the Titanic and Doña Paz, aside from its route and technical specifications, is the status of passengers.

The Titanic carried a large number of wealthy westerners. Those who boarded the Doña Paz were mostly average Filipinos — no names, no status in society, even in their own country.


Related post: Remembering Asia’s Titanic: The Doña Paz tragedy that killed over 4,000 in Dec 1987

Remembering Asia’s Titanic: The Doña Paz tragedy that killed over 4,000 in Dec 1987

Dona Paz tragedy - image from the survivor website


What is the world’s worst peace-time maritime disaster?

No, it’s not the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a disaster that happened 75 later, on the other side of the planet – in Asia.

It is the sinking of the MV Doña Paz, off the coast of Dumali Point, Mindoro, in the Philippines on 20 December 1987. That night, the 2,215-ton passenger ferry sailed into infamy with a loss of over 4,000 lives – many of them burnt alive in an inferno at sea.

Nobody is certain exactly how many lives were lost — because many of them were not supposed to be on that overcrowded passenger ferry, sailing in clear tropical weather on an overnight journey.

Passenger ferries like the Doña Paz are widely used in the Philippines, an archipelago in Southeast Asia comprising over 7,000 islands. They are among the cheapest and most popular ways to travel.

Just 5 days before Christmas of 1987, hundreds of ordinary people boarded the Doña Paz for a 24-hour voyage from the Leyte island to Manila, the capital.

The Doña Paz – originally built and used in Japan in 1963 and bought by a Filipino ferry company in 1975 — was authorized to carry a maximum load of 1,518 passengers.

But the on the night of the accident, survivors say there may have been more than 4,000 people on board – a gross violation of safety procedures.

Only 24 of them survived the journey — and only just. The entire crew and most of its passengers perished in an accident happened due to negligence, recklessness and callous disregard for safety.

For a glimpse of what happened, watch these first few minutes from 2009 National Geographic documentary,Asia’s Titanic:

For a summary compiled from several journalistic and activist sources, read on…

The Doña Paz had an official passenger list of 1,493 with a crew of 59 on board. But later media investigations showed that the list did not include as many as 1,000 children below the age of four — and many passengers who paid their fare after boarding.

The ship was going at a steady pace. The passengers were settling in for the night. The Doña Paz was scheduled to arrive in Manila by morning. A survivor later said that the weather that night was clear, but the sea was choppy.

Around 10.30 pm local time, without any warning, the Doña Paz collided with another vessel. It was no ordinary ship: the MT Vector was en route from Bataan to Masbate, carrying 8,800 barrels of gasoline, diesel and kerosene owned by Caltex Philippines.

Immediately upon collision, the tanker’s cargo ignited, setting off a massive fire that soon engulfed both ships. Thousands of passengers were trapped inside the burning ferry.

Dozens of passengers leaped into the sea without realizing that the petroleum products had also set the surrounding seas ablaze. Those in the water had to keep diving to avoid the flames spreading on the surface.

Of all the passengers and crew on board, only 24 survived. Everything known about this maritime disaster is based largely on their accounts – and investigative work done by a handful of journalists.

MV Doña Paz in 1984, three years before its tragic end - Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons - lindsaybridge

One survivor claimed that the lights onboard went out soon after the collision: there had been no life vests on the Doña Paz, and that none of the crew was giving any orders. It was later said that the life jackets were locked up beyond emergency reach.

The few survivors were later rescued swimming among many charred bodies in the shark-infested Tablas Strait that separates Mindoro and Panay islands.

The first help arrived at the scene around one and a half hours after the collision – it was another passing ship. By this time, most passengers of the ferry were dead.

The Doña Paz sank within two hours of the collision, while the Vector sank in four hours. The sea is about 545 meters deep in the collision site.

The Philippines Coast Guard did not learn about the disaster until eight hours after it happened. An official search and rescue mission took more hours to get started.

In the days that followed, the full scale of the horrible tragedy became clear. The ferry’s owner company, Sulpicio Lines, argued that the ferry was not overcrowded. It also refused to acknowledge anyone other than those officially listed on its passenger manifest.

Manifests on Philippine inter-island vessels are notoriously inaccurate. They often record children as “half-passengers” or disregard them entirely. Corrupt officials frequently accept bribes to allow overloading.

Many victims were probably incinerated when the vessels exploded and will never be accounted for. Rescuers found only 108 bodies, many of them charred and mutilated beyond recognition. More bodies were later washed ashore to nearby islands where the local people buried them after religious rituals.

All officers on board the Doña Paz were killed in the disaster, and the two from the Vector who survived had both been asleep at the time. This left the field entirely to lawyers from all sides to endlessly argue over what went wrong, how – and who was responsible.

It was later found that, at the time of the collision, both ships had been moving slowly: the Doña Paz at 26 km per hour, and Vector at 8 km per hour. They were surrounded by 37 square km of wide open sea – plenty of time and space to avoid crashing into each other!

Experts also wondered why the two ships had not communicated with each other before the crash. It is internationally required that all ships carry VHF radio. The Vector was found to have an expired radio license. The radio license for the Doña Paz was a fake.

Survivors told investigators that the crew of the Doña Paz were having a party on board minutes before it collided with the oil tanker. Some reports suggested that the captain himself had been among the revelers.

Being ordinary people, the passenger didn’t know details of maritime rank or procedure. It is likely that a mate or apprentice was steering the Doña Paz. Not a single crew member survived to tell their version of the incident.

After a long and contentious inquiry, the investigators placed the blame on the Vector.

Independent analyses have identified multiple factors that contributed to this tragedy: lack of law enforcement arising from corruption and connivance; under-qualified and overworked crew; telecommunications failures; and inadequate search and rescue efforts in the event of accidents.

Asia's Titanic - NatGeo poster for 2009 film

In August 2009, National Geographic Channel broadcast an investigative documentary titled Asia’s Titanic that tried to piece together the evidence and understand what happened.

Directed by award-winning Filipino director Yam Laranas, it was the first for any Filipino filmmaker to direct a full-length documentary for the global channel noted for its factual films.

Through dramatic first hand accounts from survivors and rescuers, transcripts from the Philippine congressional inquiry into the tragedy, archival footage and photos and a re-enactment of the collision, dissect the unfolding tragedy of Doña Paz.

The 10-million Filipino peso project took more than 3 years to make, but even its makers could not find all the answers.

“The truth may never be known. In the years after the Doña Paz tragedy, shipping disasters continue to plague the Philippines,” says the documentary as it ends.

Watch the NatGeo film in full on Doña Paz survivors’ website

Meanwhile, nearly 25 years on, the struggle for justice for the victims and survivors is still on.

Related post: Baby Ruth Villarama on researching and filming “Asia’s Titanic” for National Geographic

Arthur C Clarke and Rubik’s Cube 2.0 – are we there yet?


Science fiction writer and futurist Sir Arthur C Clarke knew how closed economies and restrictive cultures stifled innovation. He once said the only memorable invention to emerge from Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe was the Rubik’s Cube!

Rubik’s Cube is a 3D mechanical puzzle invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture, Ernő Rubik. Since then, its huge worldwide success has led to several variations.

I just came across an interesting suggestion for an enhanced Rubik’s Cube, by Arthur Clarke himself, while re-reading his 1990 novel The Ghost from the Grand Banks.

It was an ocean-based thriller set in the (then) near future. It revolved around British-American and Japanese teams competing to raise the Titanic‘s wreck in time for the centenary in April 2012.

In the novel, Sir Arthur talks about the Rubik’s Cube making a comeback 30 years after its first appearance — and in a far more deadly mutation.

As he describes: “Because it was a purely mechanical device, the original Cube had one weakness, for which its addicts were sincerely thankful. Unlike all their neighbours, the six centre squares on each face was fixed. The other forty-eight squares could orbit around them, to create a possible 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 distinct patterns.

“The Mark II had no such limitations; all the fifty-four squares were capable of movement, so there were no fixed centres to give reference to its maddened manipulators. Only the development of microchips and liquid crystal displays had made such a prodigy possible; nothing really moved, but the multicoloured squares could be dragged around the face of the Cube merely by touching them with a fingertip”.

A quick check on the official Rubik website, and a Google search, shows no such device being on the market.

Do you know if anyone has attempted this?

Why do we still go to the movies in the 21st Century?

Going to the movies has been a shared cultural activity for at least four generations. In that time, technology has marched forward in leaps and bounds — but the core experience remains the same. And we still keep going to the movies, at the cinema, even though we now have other ways of seeing the same films. Why?

On the penultimate day of 2009, I went to the local cinema to see 2012, Roland Emmerich’s latest depiction of the mother of all disasters. For 158 gripping minutes, I willingly suspended disbelief and allowed the myth-makers of Hollywood to thoroughly scare me out of my wits. As did, it seemed, the few hundred other people watching it on wide screen with surround sound. There is no way the literally earth-shattering scenes of this movie would seem and feel remotely realistic anywhere else…

But cinemas are far from perfect – for instance, we had put up with a bunch of screaming brats whose parents had unwisely brought them for the wrong kind of movie. I’ve sat through far more noisy and boorish behaviour at cinemas: notable among them is watching Titanic at a massive, packed cinema in downtown Mumbai sometime in 1998 — and discovering how ‘interactive’ Indian movie-goers can get. (After the initial irritation wears off, I became almost oblivious to the distractions, thanks to James Cameron’s superb story telling.)

I just refuse to see such blockbusters on a small screen. (Ok, I might watch movies on long flights when I get tired of reading, but I have never been able to bring myself to watching a movie on an ipod…)

In fact, the movie industry is as much caught up in the digital wave as all other aspects of media. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times noted in a perceptive essay this week: “How much our world of moving-image entertainment has changed in the past decade! We now live in a world of the 24-Hour Movie, one that plays anytime and anywhere you want (and sometimes whether you want it to or not). It’s a movie we can access at home by pressing a few buttons on the remote (and agreeing to pay more for it than you might at the local video store) or with a few clicks of the mouse. The 24-Hour Movie now streams instead of unspools, filling our screens with images that, more and more, have been created algorithmically rather than photographically.”

Yet, unlike in other media experiences, the changes in the movie industry have gone largely unnoticed by ordinary viewers. As Dargis writes: “Film is profoundly changing — or, if you believe some theorists and historians, is already dead — something that most moviegoers don’t know. Yet, because the visible evidence of this changeover has become literally hard to see, and because the implications are difficult to grasp, it is also understandable why the shift to digital has not attracted more intense analysis outside film and media studies.”

Dargis is probably right: by adapting and evolving with the times, the cinema has survived for over a century. As Donald Clarke noted in The Irish Times at the beginning of December 2009: “Television failed to kill movies. Video failed to kill movies. Internet piracy – not to mention all the other diversions available online – has also failed to annihilate this most stubbornly resilient of art forms. Film-makers will, it is true, tell you that it is now more difficult than ever to negotiate financing for movies that cost between $3 million and $15 million. But you couldn’t say that the current recession has crippled the movie business.”

All this makes me wonder what movie-going might be like in another decade or two. 3D and IMAX are no longer so uncommon or special, and the entertainment industry is working hard to relate to not just our seeing and hearing, but other senses as well. (Did you know that, as long ago as 1960, they tried to introduce smelling movies? Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odors during the projection of a film so that the viewer could “smell” what was happening in the movie. The technique injected 30 different smells into a movie theater’s seats when triggered by the film’s soundtrack. For some reason, it never caught on…)

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter of money or technology. There is also a whole sociology of movie going and movie watching – many of us go to the cinema (not nearly often enough in my case) not just for the personal sensory experience of a celluloid dream, but also for the shared experience of it. I like bumping into friends at cinemas. At a premiere or special screening, I also get to steal a few glimpses of the glitterati of the film world.

Have you been to a film musical and had the uncontrollable urge to burst into song? London’s Prince Charles Cinema not only allows, but encourages viewers to do just this — though only on certain days of the month. Their most famous offering is Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music: a few years ago, I joined several hundred other assorted ‘nuns’, von Trapp family members and Julie Andrews look-a-likes in such a memorable experience. I have the digitally remastered DVD of the 1965 movie, an ever-green title in my household. But watching it at home can’t compare with the sense of community that one feels when the lyrics for all the songs appear on the movie screen, giving the audience every reason to sing their hearts out…

I’m not sure how popular (or even acceptable) such community movie watching would be in different cultures. But going to the movies retains its charm and appeal in this digital age, even if we have come a long way since the glorious days of movie going as captured in this wonderful and memorable song from the musical Annie (1982) – Let’s Go To The Movies

Saving MSM Titanic – or is it lifeboat time for its passengers?

Unthinkable? Not any more...

Unthinkable? Not any more...

What is to be done? The innocuous question has probably been asked by so many individuals throughout history. Lenin famously asked it in 1901, and then spent the next few years cooking up a revolution that changed history (for better or worse, depends on where you come from).

What is to be done? I popped this same, unoriginal yet useful question during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

The context was not sparking revolution, but coping with evolution: how to survive and adapt at a time when mainstream media (MSM) is under siege from technological change, loss of public confidence and economic recession.

Why do I care? Unlike my new media activist friends, who cannot wait to see the MSM ‘mediasaurus’ die, I see value and utility in this ‘species’ that has evolved for over 500 years. Yes, there is much that is not right with them – including greed, arrogance and narcissism. But MSM’s outreach still remains unmatched in many parts of developing Asia, where we simply cannot wait until the online/mobile media to evolve, scale up and establish themselves to completely serve the public interest. I will thus engage the dinosaurs as long as they remain useful…

Besides, not all members of the mediasaurus clan are ferocious and carnivorous; there are also many gentle, ‘vegetarian’ ones among them who have always been empathetic and caring. I see merit in the adaptation of these better MSM, if only so that we don’t have to put all our eggs in the online/mobile media basket…

So I spent part of my talk asking aloud how the MSM – under siege – can adapt fast and increase their survival chances. The overall suggestion was that they move out of denial or resistance, and instead try to ‘exploit the inevitable’ (a pragmatic policy if ever there was one!).

Here are some initial thoughts I offered:
• Prepare for coming calamity, by taking advantage of the likely delay in its arrival in our region and our island.
• Consider it a ‘cleansing’ process, a new beginning to do things better.
• Decide what’s really worth saving, and let go of everything else that is no longer useful or relevant.

Let’s remember, too, that the very term ‘media’ is a plural. That means:
• One size doesn’t fit all; one solution won’t help/save everyone.
• Different ‘lifeboats’ can be found for different media outlets.
• You will only find out what works by trying out a few alternatives.
• No solution is fail-proof or ‘unsinkable’.

In some ways, mainstream media has behaved with the same kind of arrogance of those who built and operated RMS Titanic, and in this instance, the iceberg has already been spotted. At this stage, should MSM be re-arranging furniture on the ship’s deck — or discussing rescue plans?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?

Big Ben at 150: Who'd build one like this today?

When the maritime tragedy happened nearly a century ago, on 14 April 1912, it dominated headlines around the world for many days. But MSM was in such nascent stages at the time, newspapers being the sole dominant mass medium. Radio communication had just been discovered, but radio broadcasting still lay a few years in the future.

To adapt and survive, MSM can also learn from how other industries faced vast challenges. For example, take the time-keeper industry:
• A century ago: people had to go to a post office, railway station or another public place to find the time. Clock Towers and public clocks announced time for all.
• Then came personal clocks (elaborate time pieces) that the wealthy people carried around in pockets or handbags.
• This was followed by wrist watches – personalised, affordable and portable.
• Now, mobile phones tell us the date, time and lot else!

Clock tower makers went out of business, and no one misses them now. Watch makers have adapted with the times, and are still competing with mobile makers. The parallels with the media industry are clear enough.

Back to the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, I find others have played on this metaphor. Michelle Tripp wrote a particularly insightful commentary in April 2009 – she has no patience for MSM and can’t wait for the troubled ship to sink.

Somebody writing as ‘Global1’ has commented about how the Titanic‘s Band played on to the very end (and went down playing). S/he asks: Could This Be Analogy To The Modern Day MSM? In this analogy, MSM is the band, and their ‘music’ is the news…

Incidentally, the centenary of the Titanic‘s sinking is coming up shortly, in 2012. It would be interesting to see how the MSM/Titanic analogy plays out in the next few years…

Encounters with Mediasaurus: Telling media tycoons what is missing in their media!

I have just been very lucky. I addressed a select gathering of media owners, publishers, editors and senior journalists — almost all of them working in the mainstream print or broadcast media in Sri Lanka — and virtually called them dinosaurs, and compared their industry to the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.

The nice people they all were, they actually let me get away with it! The occasion was the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009, held at the now-renovated Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.

Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...

Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...

Coordinated, produced and published by the Asia Media Forum with the assistance of Actionaid, the report is a quick survey of the state of media in 20 Asian countries, written mostly by working journalists and broadcasters. It focuses on how the media throughout Asia reports on marginalised people and communities in their respective societies, from the very poorest countries to the richest.

‘Missing in the Media’ is the theme of Asia Media Report 2009, and I used this as the point of departure for my talk, illustrated with many cartoons some of which have appeared on this blog. I fully agreed with the editor and contributors of the report – six of whom I know – that there are many elements missing or lacking in Asia’s mainstream media today. But instead of adding to that list, I asked a more fundamental question: at a time when the mass media as we know it is under threat of mass extinction, how do we save and nurture at least a few good things that we hold dear?

In that process, I had to do some plain speaking and tell my audience that they cannot continue business as usual and expect to remain relevant, or even solvent for too long. I referred to the famous mediasaurus essay by Michael Crichton, and traced what happened since its appearance in 1993. I also compared the media’s arrogance to that of the Titanic‘s builders, who believed the ship was unsinkable.

I will be sharing highlights of my talk in the coming days through one or more blogposts. For now, I’m still grateful that my remarks were received with good grace and cordiality. (For more, read post on ICT revolution, and post on greater collaboration between mainstream media and citizen journalism.)

I don’t do this kind of big picture talk too often, and mind my own business most of the time (which is a hands full these days). In fact, the last two occasions I spoke my mind to assorted worthies of the Sri Lankan media, the reaction was much harsher.

The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks

The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks

First was when I talked about the press freedom in the digital age to large gathering of Sri Lankan journalists and editors was the World Press Freedom Day Colombo observance in 2001. When I referred to the potential of new communications technologies – especially the (then still emergent) Internet and mobile phones – for safeguarding media freedoms, I was practically shouted down by a section of the audience. They felt I was talking about ‘western trends’ and ‘concerns too far removed from their bread-and-butter issues and survival issues’. Yet, the past few years have amply proved that if anything, I was too conservative in what I anticipated as technology’s role in promoting media freedom.

The second occasion was in mid 2004, when I was asked to speak at a Colombo meeting to mark the launch of a scholarly volume (in Sinhala) looking back at the first 25 years of television broadcasting in Sri Lanka. I was one of two dozen contributors, from diverse backgrounds of culture, science and journalism, who were brought together by the Catholic Media Centre of Sri Lanka which has a (secular) media monitoring programme. Having expressed my reflective views in the book chapter, in my speech I discussed my aspirations for the next 25 years — hoping there would be greater innovation and experimentation in an industry that seemed to be running short of both. This irked a certain local pioneer of television, who spoke after me and spent half of his given time attacking me personally and ideologically. Talk about pioneer’s syndrome. That definitely was a mediasaurus breathing fire, and I don’t want to meet one of these beasts on a dark night…

On both occasions, the event organisers apologised to me for the hostile reactions, but I was cool. By now, I’m used to reactions of all kinds in the public sphere. Given this history, yesterday’s encounter was far more reassuring that there still are good people even in an industry that is under siege in more ways than one.

I’m so fortunate to be welcomed by both media practitioners and media researchers across Asia. I’m no longer a card-carrying member of either group (if I ever was!), but I have great fun hobnobbing with both, occasionally telling them some home truths. This is what Irish journalist-cum-academic Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘having a foot in both graves’!