RESCUERS braved rough seas on Sunday as they continued the search for victims of the collision of a passenger ship and a cargo vessel even as hope in finding survivors dimmed two days after the disaster.
Navy divers retrieved two bodies from the sunken MV Saint Thomas Aquinas yesterday, hours after search and rescue operations were halted by bad weather.
Lt. Cmdr. Noel Escalona, operations officer of the Naval Forces Central, said that the latest victims were a man and a woman. He said there were more bodies trapped inside the vessel. Escalona said volunteer groups have joined the divers from the Navy and Coast Guard in recovering more victims.
“We are focusing on underwater retrievals. The search and rescue on the surface is also ongoing but our focus here at the navforce (naval forces) is on underwater retrievals,” he told reporters.
He said a team of technical divers placed markers at the entrance and exit points of the sunken ship to serve as guides.
He said the retrieval of the missing passengers may be finished today.
“Definitely there are more bodies inside the wreckage. We have seen several of them but we could not yet retrieve them because our divers could not penetrate the most inner part of the wreckage,” he said.
He explained that diving at more than 120 feet requires special skills and special gear. Divers also have to contend with the oil spill which affect their visibility and movement under water.
The Saint Thomas Aquinas collided with a cargo ship of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., formerly named Sulpicio Lines, on Friday night. The cargo ship with 36 crew on board did not sink.
So far, 34 people have been confirmed killed.
Stormy weather forced an early suspension of search and rescue operations with a few hours of daylight remaining on Saturday, and similar conditions hampered the effort when rescuers returned to the waters at dawn on Sunday morning.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic said the weather had prevented divers from reaching the interior of the sunken vessel.
“It is possible that there are air pockets in its compartments and there might be survivors,” Fabic said, adding people could survive for 72 hours in such conditions.
“There is still hope that there might just be survivors there.”
The number of people officially listed as missing was sharply reduced on Sunday to 85 from 170 due to tallying issues rather than any fresh rescues.
The number of missing was cut after those involved in the search reconciled their figures, said Neil Sanchez, regional disaster management office head in Cebu.
Navy vessels, Coast Guard personnel in rubber boats and volunteer fishermen scoured about three square kilometers of water outside the port for anyone who may still be floating.
While maintaining that all hope had not yet been lost, authorities cautioned the odds of finding any more survivors were low.
“We are still hopeful, although you have to accept the reality that their chances of survival are very slim,” the head of the provincial disaster management office, Neil Sanchez, told reporters.
The Maritime Industry Authority said the ferry and the cargo ship had passed safety checks and were seaworthy, indicating human error was to blame for one of the ships going into a wrong lane.
Canada’s Ambassador to the Philippines Christopher Thornley sent his deep concern and condolences to the families of the victims of the ship collision.
“Our thoughts go out to all of those affected by the ferry accident, and we would like to convey our support and appreciation to the emergency services workers and rescuers searching for the missing and injured,” Thornley said in a statement sent by the Canadian Embassy in Manila.
Globe set up Libreng Tawag centers to help the families of victims get in touch with their loved ones in Cebu.
“During times like this, we know that communications is very important. The rescued passengers wouldn’t have their mobile phones with them but at the same time, they need to contact their families, relatives, or friends for assistance or for reassurance,” said Fernando Esguerra, officer-in-charge of Globe Corporate Social Responsibility.
The first Libreng Tawag site is at the Pier 4 Terminal in Port Area where about 300 survivors are staying while the second Libreng Tawag center is in Sugbutel, one of the two hostels which house the other survivors.
The free service can be used for local, national, and international calls and text until such time that the situation stabilizes.
WITH REPORTS FROM AFP AND BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON