Stormy weather forced Philippine rescuers to suspend a search yesterday for 171 people missing after a crowded ferry collided with a cargo ship and quickly sank, with 31 others confirmed dead.
The St Thomas Aquinas ferry was carrying 831 passengers and crew when the vessels smashed into each other late on Friday night in a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines’ second-biggest city, authorities said.
Coast guard and military vessels, as well as local fishermen in their own small boats, frantically worked through the night and yesterday morning to haul 629 people out of the water alive.
However, when bad weather whipped up the ocean mid-afternoon yesterday, authorities suspended the search with 171 people still unaccounted for.
“It rained hard ... with strong winds and rough seas,” Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic told reporters.
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.
Fabic said rescuers had not given up hope that there were other survivors who were still drifting at sea.
However, Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the coast guard, said the death toll would almost certainly rise from the 31 bodies that had been retrieved.
“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.
Pope Francis was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life,” a Vatican statement said, adding he would pray for all affected in the predominantly Catholic country.
One survivor, Lolita Gonzaga, 57, recalled the terror of falling from the top deck of the ship to the bottom level when the collision occurred, then the horror of escaping 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 told reporters from a hospital bed in Cebu.
Fisherman Mario Chavez told reporters he was one of the first people to reach passengers after the ferry sank in calm waters between 2km and 3km from shore.
“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.
The cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew on board, did not sink. Television footage showed its steel bow had caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.
Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels had violated rules on which lanes they should use when travelling in and out of the port, without specifying which one.
The strait leading into the Cebu port is a well-known danger zone, said the enforcement office chief of the government’s Maritime Industry Authority, Arnie Santiago.
“It is a narrow passage. Many ships have had minor accidents there in the past, but nothing this major,” Santiago told reporters.
Industry authority head Maximo Mejia later told reporters that both vessels had previously passed safety inspections and were seaworthy, indicating human error was to blame.