Episode 37: A Titanic Tragity

Jan 15, 2021

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Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that promises 2021 will be a better year… and if you believe that, we’re also the podcast that would love to sell you some swamp land in the sahara…

I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with here, the only place you’ll find this particular cryptid, Shea the Yeti—and his little fluff too!

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that this is the first time a sitting president has been banned from Twitter going back to 1812.

I’m Jenn and this week I learned that Dire wolves aren’t actually wolves at all. They are actually more closely related to jackals, and broke off from the lineage with wolves millions of years ago. So, something…something…you REALLY no nothing Jon Snow.

Rough Seas Ahead…

Despite my plucky intro 2021 has already told 2020 to hold its beer so we may as well sit back and watch as Rome burns—or to make it relevant to today’s story, play on as the ship sinks…

Lots of ships have sunk, but few as impressively as the Doña Paz.

You may have heard the story of the Doña Paz wreck as it was the most deadly wreck of a ship not at war. That record, in the 20th century anyway, goes to the Spanish Castillo de Olite which sank on the 7th of March, 1939, taking 1,476 of her 2,112 sailors to Davy Jones’ Locker. Still, the Doña Paz would have beat that handily.

For you history buffs Wikipedia lists the Battle of Tsushima as the 20th centuries deadliest nautical event. In the Russo-Japanese War between 1904-1905 two-thirds of Russia’s fleet was lost along with 4,380 sailors. 5,917 more were captured. So that’s all… horrible.

Still, the Doña Paz… just barely wins this entirely dreadful race as well.

Also known as “Asia’s Titanic” the Doña Paz took four thousand, three hundred, and thirty-six down with her—nearly 3 times as many as the Titanic.

So, what happened?

First, the Doña Paz was launched on April 25th, 1963 from Hiroshima, Japan, as the Himeyuri Maru. Which had a passenger capacity of 608. In October of 1975 it was purchased by Suplicio Lines and renamed the Don Suuplicio. Following a fire it was restored and renamed Doña Paz.

It made a ferry circuit of Manila → Tacloban → Catbalogan → Manila twice a week. On December 20th, 1987, the Doña Paz left Leyte island for the capital, Manila. Officially, the Doña Paz could carry 1,518 passengers and it’s sixty six crew members. However, most sources I found noted that this official passenger manifest—listing 1,493 people—didn’t include the nearly 1000 children under four on board, nore did it list the battalion of soldiers they picked up at the last minute because “why the hell not.”

So the Doña Paz set off on the last leg of its journey with an estimated 4,386 passengers. Which is, by my math, way, way, too many. Apparently, people were packed into the vessel’s three levels so tightly that it was standing-room-only on basically every flat surface except the bridge. One survivor, Luthgardo Niedo, a military officer said “it was so crowded, the Doña Paz tilted to one side” reasoning it was only slight overcrowding for Christmas.

Now, I mention the bridge because, like the Titanic we know and love to make movies about, there was negligence afoot in the form of a f*cking rager. The Captain and some of the crew, along with a number of the military men, were rocking out on the bridge. This left the job of… steering the ship… to the much less experienced… whoever drew the short straw.

Luthgardo recounts meeting another soldier at the side of the vessel… the bathrooms being full of people as well. While they warmed the water the soldier told him “I heard some music and laughter. […] The captain of the ship was at the party,” the other soldier being there to break the seal. Fortunately for Luthgardo, he was sober and taking his time, which positioned him to see the MT Vector—an oil tanker caring more than 8,000 barrels of gasoline and kerosene—coming right for them.

At half past 11, the MT Vector rammed the left side of the Doña Paz, destroying the main switchboard,engine room, and causing a fiery explosion.

The MT Vector, for it’s part, wasn’t exactly running smoothly. It was overloaded as well, so much so, that it took two crew members to steer and was therefore moving in a wobbly, zig-zag motion that likely would have confused the hell out of the folks steering the Doña Paz.

The Board of Marine Inquiry also noted that a number of the MT Vector’s crew were asleep at the time—including the lookout. Still, the awake crew weren’t handling things much better. It turns out that the MT Vector’s chief engineer wasn’t exactly Jordy LaForge, in fact, he wasn’t even a licensed engineer. So the ship was overloaded, under-staffed, and—by the way—of questionable sea-worthiness as the Vector was sailing without a certificate of inspection.

Still, even if the Vector’s lookout was looking for stuff, they wouldn’t have been able to turn fast enough to avoid the collision due to being so overloaded and they wouldn’t have been able to warn the Doña Paz, because the Doña Paz had no radio!

So, the ships collide, explode, and start to sink—a process that would take the Doña Paz only two hours. Survivors of the blast are left to face a wildfire or shark-infested waters. Those who can choose the water but few make it. The gasoline spread quickly, consuming more than a kilometer in flames in the four hours it took the Vector to sink.

Worse still, the Doña Paz’s life jackets—far too few in number anyway—were reportedly locked away by the crew.

Witnessing the explosion, a few locals and the captain of the MS Don Claudio, set out to rescue survivors… an hour later. No reason given for that, just “after an hour” in the middle of that bit of the story. Adding to the tragedy, it took eight hours for the Philippine maritime authorities to find out about the wreck, and then another eight hours to launch a rescue.

The books and documentary, which is available on YouTube and linked in the show notes, talk about the timing but most stories leave it out either because they were so late as to be irrelevant to the story, or because of what I’m sure is a deep societal, political, scar. I don’t know the lore or feelings of the locals, but I know when authorities are late to places of extreme unrest here, the discourse can get pretty… heated.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=163&v=WAY5XjCLN5w&feature=emb_title

In the end Sulpicio Shipping Lines denied that the ferry was overcrowded and said that survivors were not credible eyewitnesses able to judge the number of people on a ship. The Board of Marine Inquiry found the Vector to be at fault.

After intense pressure Sulpicio “compensated” only the victims from the official manifest and a mere 4k USD at that. That said, there is something of an update. In 2017 the families of those who were lost, given some form of compensation, though I can’t find what. This came after a 1999 ruling in the Supreme Court of the Philippines which found the families of unlisted victims were due indemnity as well.

Leaders from around the world reached out in solidarity with the Philippines as reports around the world called it, rightfully so, the worst peace-time maritime disaster of the 20th century.

More recently the wreck of both ships was surveyed by the Research Vessel Petrel. Working with the National Museum of the Philippines they examined the site and created a brief underwater view of the wreck. It’s like the ones you see on National Geographic of the Titanic and is, as far as I saw, free of the more gruesome details.

So, there you go, the story of the worst shipwreck to date. And if that left you a little less than giddy, Patrons are due for an uplifting second half as Shea explains how to survive the apocalypse in style.

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Cookies for the end of the World

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Since 2008, the Svaldbard Global Seed Vault in Norway has served as one of the last lines of defense against the annihilation of plant life on Earth. The secure facility, built into the side of a mountain, holds over one million seed samples, offering hope that if all other existence of a crop is wiped out, a final backup will still be available. This is great if you want fruits and vegetables or whatever, but what if you want more?

Well good news, the Svalbard Global Seed Bank got a new neighbour back in 2017. Instead of storing seeds, this vast library has been built to ensure the survival of the world’s most important books, documents, and data. Known as the Arctic World Archive, this new facility has been built into the same frozen mountain as the original seed vault, and is open to governments and research facilities from around the world as a place for storing their records. Companies and private individuals can also pay for the privilege of having their information locked underground for at least the next millennium, deep inside an abandoned mine that’s been frozen in Arctic permafrost. What’s really interesting is that they store all the data in an analogue format on film, the security experts say it’s far safer than keeping it online, where it’s vulnerable to cyber attacks and hacking, and the permafrost conditions will ensure a constant temperature for centuries to come. According to the company, it has run experiments to show that even if outside temperatures rise dramatically – in the event of nuclear war, for example – the film will survive for at least 500 years. But they suspect it would still be possible to read the etchings 1,000 years from now, and are now running experiments to prove it.

So, worst case scenario and everything goes to pot we can make our way up to the arctic, fight a few polar bears and access to fruits, veggies, and entertainment. Doesn’t sound so bad, but a few luxuries would make the end of the world a little better. Good thing Oreo thought to plan ahead.

Announced this past October, the Global Oreo Vault is—in the words of Oreo—it is significantly smaller than its seed counterpart. The cookie brand says this Oreo-focused facility holds just “the Oreo recipe and a large stockpile of cookies.”

But if all hell does break loose on our planet, know that you’ll always find the world’s best-selling cookies at the coordinates 78° 08’ 58.1” N, 16° 01’ 59.7” E. Whether you’ll be able to find some milk, well, that’s a different situation entirely. Now, how did the doomsday campaign come to be? Oreo’s senior director Justin Parnell said the brand had sent its agency partners an open brief in the fall to “spread some playfulness” and provide “a little relief from all the worry and division in the world right now.” But what specifically sparked the vault concept was a tweet from a fan on Oct. 3, asking who would save Oreos if Asteroid 2018 VP1 made contact. (The asteroid, discovered in 2018, had a 0.41% chance of impacting Earth on 2 November 2020)

“[The tweet] sparked the question: ‘What lengths would we go to save Oreo cookies from a catastrophic event?’” Frank Cartagena, chief creative officer at The Community, New York, said. “Even though the threat was minimal, we knew we didn’t want to live in a world without Oreo cookies. Or worse, a world where just oatmeal raisin cookies survived. So, despite having no time, we set off to build a miniature version of the global seed vault just down the road from the original.”

Oreo replied to the fan’s tweet with “Hold my milk,” and 21 days later, the brand and its agency partners revealed the finished product. Oreo promoted the stunt with a coordinated campaign, releasing 40 pieces of social content over five days that led up to the release of a short mockumentary. Filmed in Oslo, it follows the journey of astronomers and project managers—portrayed by actors—constructing the vault. The vault is a silly idea—backed by an even sillier set of videos on YouTube featuring actors portraying Oreo executives—but despite the tongue-in-cheek tone to the advertising side of the project, the brand apparently really did go the extra mile to assure their cookies are safe inside.

“As an added precaution, the Oreo packs are wrapped in mylar, which can withstand temperatures from -80 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and is impervious to chemical reactions, moisture and air, keeping the cookies fresh and protected for years to come,” Oreo announced.

Fans responded by sliding into Oreo’s Twitter DMs to ask to work vault security, floating conspiracy theories about the vault’s passcode and asking where they could find their own cookie packs wrapped in mylar, which was reserved for influencers. Brands including Sour Patch Kids and Burger King also got in on doomsday vault discourse.

Parnell said the main reason why the campaign was successful was that it tapped into a cultural conversation happening in real time. “We not only jumped into the social conversation around Asteroid 2018 VP1, but surprised fans by showing up in a uniquely-Oreo way, with a playfully unexpected, over-the-top solution to the pending threat.”

Outro

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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

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