An overcrowded boat capsized during a sea parade in a remote central Philippine province yesterday and at least 16 people drowned officials said.
Southern Leyte Governor Rosette Lerias said one person fell overboard and when others in the boat went to one side to see what had happened, the boat lost stability and capsized.
The still-undetermined number of passengers -- a considerable proportion of them children -- were thrown overboard.
Although the accident occurred in good weather, many of the victims were unable to reach shore due to injury or strong currents, she said.
The religious parade was meant to honor the infant Jesus, during the annual festival of Santo Nino, Lerias said.
Coast Guard men and army rescue contingents, including soldiers aboard two helicopters, were en route to the accident site in San Ricardo town in Southern Leyte province to help in the search, according to officials.
Lerias, who was directing rescue operations from Manila, said local officials in San Ricardo, about 650km southeast of the capital, had reported at least 16 people drowned and that it was difficult to determine how many more were missing because there was no boat passenger manifest.
However, Chief Superintendent Eliseo Dela Paz, a regional police director, said that three others were missing.
"Scuba divers from the air force have been flown in from nearby Cebu province and are currently scouring the area," he said in a report.
Doctor Bonifacio de Guzman, an official of the provincial district hospital, said most of the fatalities were children aged between two and 16.
"All the victims drowned," he said.
"They were aboard a motorised pump-boat that was participating in the fluvial parade held on the occasion of the feast of Santo Nino, the infant Jesus," De Guzman said.
He said the pump-boat was returning to the town pier from the nearby Surigao Strait when it overturned.
A police officer, Sam Llanes, told radio DZBB that he counted at least 15 bodies in a hospital in nearby Pintuyan town, where most victims were brought by villagers.
"I was told that there were many more who have not yet been found," he said.
The tragedy should prompt officials to strictly enforce safety rules during similar public celebrations, especially in far-flung rural regions, Lerias said.
"We can't stop traditions but this is a wake-up call," she said.
"Children shouldn't be allowed aboard these boats because they're the most helpless when an accident strikes," she added.
Boat accidents are common in the Philippines because many ferries used in inter-island travel are old and poorly maintained and to make matters worse there is weak enforcement of sea safety regulations.
Dela Paz said Director General Arturo Lomibao, the national police chief, has ordered an investigation into the accident and plans to visit the scene of the the tragedy some time today.