RESCUE teams scoured the seas the whole day Saturday for survivors of the collision between a ferry and a cargo ship Friday night off Talisay City, Cebu province, that killed at least 35 people and left dozens missing.
The Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard deployed divers as local fishermen and rescuers plucked survivors and dead bodies from the stormy sea.
Lt. Jim Alagao, public affairs officer of the military’s central command, put the number of dead at 35 with 171 people, mostly passengers of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas, missing as of press time.
Coast Guard and military vessels hauled 629 people out of the water alive, Transport Secretary Joseph Abaya told reporters.
The St. Thomas Aquinas was carrying 831 passengers and crew as it entered a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines’ second biggest city, authorities said.
The ferry, owned and operated by 2GO Shipping Lines, was approaching the Cebu port at the end of its voyage from Butuan City when it collided with M/V Sulpicio Express 7, which was going in the opposite direction.
The collision occurred at 9 p.m. near the mouth of the port, between two and three kilometers from shore, authorities said.
Alagao said divers went down to the sunken vessel but had to stop because of poor visibility.
“Divers from the Coast Guard and Navy reached 80 feet, but visibility was poor and that is a dangerous situation,” Alagao said.
The wind had also picked up and the seas became rough, Navy spokesman Lt. Cdr. Gregory Fabic told Agence France-Presse.
He also said powerful currents had earlier prevented divers from assessing all of the sunken ferry to determine how many people had died and were trapped inside the vessel.
Fabic said rescuers had not given up hope that there were other survivors who were either still drifting at sea, and searches would continue for them.
R. Adm. Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, said the death toll would inevitably rise.
“The captain managed to declare abandon ship and they distributed life jackets but, because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside,” he said, adding the ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision.
Cdr. Noel Escalona, operations officer of the Naval Forces Central, said the St. Thomas Aquinas is in 130 feet of water.
Cdr. Elmer Base, chief of operations center of the military’s central command, said helicopters were also dispatched to assist in the search.
The St. Thomas Aquinas was a “roll-on, roll-off” ferry, which allows vehicles to be driven aboard and is commonly used.
The Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) on Saturday suspended the shipping operations of 2GO and Philippine Span Asia.
Marina Administrator Maximo Mejia Jr. took back an earlier statement that the shipping firms will have to be investigated first before being suspended or sanctioned.
“There is no question on the stability of the other ships. But we will have to inspect all of them so we are suspending all of the ships of the companies involved,” Mejia told reporters.
Abaya said the Sulpicio Express 7 slammed into rear starboard side of the ferry.
One of the passengers of Aquinas, Mantilla Domingo, said the ship was scheduled to arrive in Cebu at around 10 p.m.
Another rescued passenger, Glenda Sabadilla, said most of the passengers were sleeping at the time of the collision.
“There was a commotion and everyone was already searching for their lifevests, and then we all started jumping out of the sinking vessel,” she said.
The captain of the passenger ship was among those rescued and was being questioned.
The Coast Guard said its personnel were trying to contain the fuel leak from the ferry.
Kabataan Partylist Representative Terry Ridon questioned why the Marina allowed 40-year-old ships to sail.
Ridon, who is a member of the House Committee on Transportation, said he will file a resolution next week seeking an inquiry into the tragedy.
“The fact that we are allowing 40-year-old ferries like MV St. Thomas Aquinas tells us something is amiss in the supervision and regulation of water transport vessels in the country. A rigorous review of Marina’s performance as a regulatory body is in order,” Ridon said.
Ferries are one of the main forms of transport across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, particularly for the millions of people too poor to fly.
But sea accidents are common, with poor safety standards and lax enforcement typically to blame.
The world’s deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred near the capital, Manila, in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 4,300 people.
In 2008, a huge ferry capsized during a typhoon off the island of Sibuyan, leaving almost 800 dead.
On June 14 this year, seven people were killed when the Lady of Mount Carmel ferry mysteriously sank near the central island of Masbate.
On June 12, 2012, at least seven people died when a ferry capsized off the coast of Palawan island.
On December 24, 2009, four people died while 23 were missing after the wooden-hulled Catalyn B with 73 passengers collided with a fishing vessel at the mouth of Manila Bay. Two days later, six people were confirmed dead and 44 were declared missing after MV Baleno-9 sank.
On September 6, 2009, nine people were killed after the Superferry 9 sank Zamboanga City. In December 2008, a ferry, Maejan, capsized off Northern Philippines, leaving 30 dead.
In November 2008, the Don Dexter Kathleen, a small wooden-hulled ferry, capsized off Masbate, leaving 42 dead.