• ‘A banging noise, then the boat began to sink’

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    A Philippine Navy boat (right) guards a cargo ship with its bow destroyed after it collided with the ferry St. Thomas Aquinas off the town of Talisay in Cebu. AFP PHOTOS

    Maribel Manalo, 23, recounted to her brother the horror of suddenly being plunged into the cold water in darkness, and emerging from the chaos of a sinking ferry without her mother.

    Manalo was among the passengers of the M/V St. Thomas Aquinas who survived the tragedy off Talisay City on Friday. Her 56-year-old mother remained missing as of Saturday afternoon.

    “She said there was a banging noise then the boat suddenly started sinking,” the brother, Arvin Manalo, told Agence France-Presse.

    “They quickly strapped on life jackets and then jumped into the dark sea. She said they felt like they were pulled under. My sister said she pushed our mother up, but they got separated,” Arvin said.

    “My sister was rescued. My sister knows how to swim, but my mother does not,” he added.

    Another passenger, 57-year-old Lolita Gonzaga, said she fell from the top deck of the ship to the bottom level when the collision occurred, and splashed into the black waters with her 62-year-old husband.

    “When we were rescued we had to share the rubber boat with a dead woman. She was just lying there,” Gonzaga recounted from a hospital bed in Cebu City where she was nursing spinal injuries.

    “We were transferred to the other ship that hit us, but I could not go up the stairs because it was full of dead people,” she said.

    “They were left hanging there. We thought we were going to die. I just held hands with my husband and prayed to God to save us,” Gonzaga said.

    A Philippine Navy enlisted man, Richard Pestillos, who was also aboard the St. Thomas Aquinas, distributed life vests and jackets to panicking passengers before jumping off the sinking ship.

    Pestillos was the sea marshall assigned to the ferry, according to Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic, Navy spokesman.

    Pestillos continued his rescue efforts when he was in the water, Fabic said. The Navy man shepherded two children and five adults to a life raft before he was rescued by the crew of freighter M/V Sulpicio 7.

    Pestillos suffered contusions in the back, but he is now in stable condition at Pier 4 Hotel in Cebu, Fabic said.

    Fifty-eight babies were among the passengers on board the ferry, according to the Philippine Coast Guard, and it was unclear how many of them survived.

    Navy divers on a speedboat scoured the sea on Saturday amid orange life rafts that had already been mostly emptied, according to an AFP photographer on the scene.

    However two lifeless bodies were seen on one raft.

    Local fisherman Mario Chavez told AFP he was one of the first people to reach passengers after the ferry sank in the 82-meter-deep channel.

    “I plucked out 10 people from the sea last night. It was pitch black and I only had a small flashlight. They were bobbing in the water and screaming for help,” he said.

    “They told me there were many people still aboard when the ferry sank… there were screams, but I could not get to all of them,” Chavez said.

    It took about 10 minutes before the ferry sank, Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, Coast Guard vice commandant, said on DZBB radio.

    “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,” Tuason said.

    The cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Television footage showed its steel bow had caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.

    The enforcement office chief of the government’s Maritime Industry Authority, Arnie Santiago, said the strait leading into the Cebu port was a well-known danger zone.

    “It is a narrow passage, many ships have had minor accidents there in the past. But nothing this major,” Santiago said. “There is a blind spot there and each ship passing through needs to give way in a portion of that narrow strip.”

    AFP and PNA

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