“It’s a terrible thing wishing that it can be someone else’s tragedy.” – John Dyer
NEW YORK CITY – The M/S Don Juan tragedy happened 37 years ago, but it was a maritime disaster that Ilonggos in Negros and Iloilo can’t forget.
It was on April 22, 1980 when M/S Don Juan, a commercial vessel owned by the Negros Navigation (NN), travelling from Manila to Bacolod City, was rammed hard by M/T Tacloban City, an oil tanker, and sank hours after leaving the Pier 2 in North Harbor, Manila.
Boy Mucovado vividly recalled the incident during the tragedy’s anniversary six years ago in a story entitled “The Day The City of Smiles Wept“:
“Around 1 pm of April 22, 1980, a jampacked M/S Don Juan of Negros Navigation (NN) carrying at least 1,000 passengers, left Pier 2 at the Manila North Harbor. It was bound for Bacolod City. Within her were vacationers, students coming home after graduation or a break in big universities in Manila, families of wealthy and illustrious Negrenses, who accompanied newly bought cars in its cargo and businessmen with bulk of their goods.
“The Don Juan was famous for its cruising speed, cutting traveling time to 18-19 hours for a Manila-Bacolod trip which was usually 22-24 hours on other vessels at that time. It featured the elegant “Admiral Class” Cabins. A signature of first class travel for NN’s fleet. It was the first of its kind to have watertight cabin and compartment doors.
“At 10:30 pm the vessel was traveling beneath a full-moon over the calm Tablas Strait between Tablas and Maestre de Campo Island with most of the passengers asleep. The rest were awake having a great time with the band at the ferry’s disco. But all of a sudden it was rammed hard on its portside by oil tanker M/T Tacloban City of the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC). It left a large gaping hole from its lower deck bunks to the Admiral Class Cabin decks. The impact jammed most of the cabin doors sealing the fate of their occupants. Fortunate ones were on the Economy Class upper decks and disco-goers. It didn’t take long and Don Juan took in seawater, listed hard to the portside then dipped forward. Screaming, terrified and wailing passengers even without life-jackets jumped to the sea.
“The crew frantically handed out life-jackets and tried to put them into lifeboats. Collapsible lifeboats were released for those already at sea. But time was too short. In 15-20 minutes Don Juan was swallowed by the sea, with it were dozens still trapped in cabins and bunks, crew members who held to their posts and those already in lifeboats but were never released on time.
“Hundreds of survivors thrashed and called for help for in the shark-infested waters. The crew of the tanker Tacloban plucked out as many survivors as they could and those killed instantly by the impact. After two hours, another PNOC tanker, M/T Laoag City, arrived after Don Juan’s distress call and took the remaining survivors and more corpses. Smaller ships and fishing vessels within its vicinity also came and helped out. Most of the survivors were brought to the port of Batangas in the morning, April 23, 1980.
“Bacolod City and the rest of Negros Occidental was shocked. It came very untimely when the province was suffering from the fall of worldwide sugar prices that heralded the collapse of the monocrop sugar industry of the province.”
Joeval Brodit came from a national dancing competition on a famous noontime TV show. He was at the disco during the collision. Jostled and was able to take a life-jacket but was grabbed off from him by a panicking passenger. While at the sea, he huddled together with a dozen more survivors on a capsized collapsible lifeboat. But he was one of those instant heroes who swam back to the sea and grabbed more survivors. One of them was Sharon Tumaliuan of Iloilo City which landed him on the front page of Manila Bulletin. It was so sad that some of those dead he took were young students, others just graduated from high school and college.
Dr. Linda Sanson, an OB-Gyne traveling with her three toddlers and two babysitters after buying stocks for her boutique in Bacolod,they instantly got out of the cabin and grabbed two lifejackets in which they shared together until rescued.
Ethel Ferrer, an elementary school teacher at the University of St. La Salle (USLS), was pregnant and traveling with her eldest son. She got separated from her son while at sea but was miraculously reunited with him after an hour despite the panic and swimming with sharks.
Jocelyn Panisa and her twin brothers Jesus and Reynaldo traveling home from a wedding with their uncle. Boarded the vessel as “chance passengers” and were at the economy class upper deck. Three of them survived clinging on the sides an overloaded lifeboat but their uncle was unlucky to be on a lifeboat that never came off the ship
-Mother of lawyer Renecito Novero. She attended her son’s (Atty. Novero) graduation from law school at UP and took the trip home;
-Alunan Family, a pride of Bacolod in the field of swimming remained missing and believed to be trapped inside one of Don Juan’s cabins;
-Montalvo Family: Nora Montalvo, wife of the late mayor Rodrigo “Digoy” Montalvo of Bacolod; their daughters Mylene, 17, and Yvette, 7; and mother-in-law, Anicia Kilayko, were never found and believed to have died inside their cabins. It was remembered by the Bacolodnon’s that the mayor was at a sorrowful state traveling to Northern Negros, Capiz and as far as Romblon and Oriental Mindoro to look for his missing family members. As described by some “he would open every casket, body bag and blanket and call out their names”
The late Ilonggo lawyer-historian Rex Salvilla recalled that MV Tacloban City rescued 320 passengers and picked out 12 dead. Its sister tanker, MV Laoag City had 506 survivors and 10 dead. Both tankers left the tragic place at one o’clock in the morning and landed at daylight at Batangas City MV Don Julio, a sister ship of MV Don Juan which left Manila, passed the place and joined in the rescue work and brought back to Manila 80 dead and transferring 62 survivors and 74 dead to another sister ship, MV Doña Florentina en route to Iloilo City.
“The horror of the tragedy is in seeing many people die before one’s eyes. A 21-year old student saw ‘many persons die before my eyes.’ But most horrible is to see a loved one die. A man hugging his 8-year old daughter lost his grip on her. Before his eyes, she slipped and disappeared into the dark sea. A teenager witnessed the drowning of her teenage older sister. A man saw his father swallowed by the sea after their raft capsized,” Salvilla remembered.