Philippine rescuers struggled in rough seas yesterday as they resumed a bleak search for the more than 80 people missing in the country’s latest ferry disaster, but insisted miracle survivor stories were possible.
Thirty-eight people have been confirmed killed after the ferry, carrying more than 800 passengers and crew, sank almost instantly on Friday night following a collision with a cargo vessel outside a major port in Cebu.
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 yesterday morning.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic said the weather had prevented divers from reaching the interior of the sunken vessel, where many of those missing were believed trapped, but rescuers would make every effort to get there.
“It is possible that there are air pockets in its compartments and there might be survivors,” Fabic said, adding that 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 yesterday to 82 from 170 due to tallying issues rather than any fresh rescues, with 38 confirmed killed.
The number was cut after those involved in the search reconciled their figures, said Neil Sanchez, regional disaster management office head in Cebu.
Authorities were unable to say how many people may be in the sunken ship, which is at a depth of about 30m, offering hope more tallying issues could lead to the number of missing dropping further.
By mid-morning, divers had searched parts of the outside of the vessel, and found the bodies of a man and a woman, said Jaypee Abuan, a navy spokesman aboard one of the patrol crafts.
“[However], we have not yet breached the interior,” he said, while forecasts of continued stormy weather throughout the day raised doubts that a full-throttle dive mission could be launched.
Meanwhile, navy vessels, coast guard personnel on rubber boats and volunteer fishermen scoured about 3km2 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,” Sanchez told reporters from rescue command center at the port.
The ships collided as they were going in opposite directions at a well-known choke point near the mouth of Cebu’s port.
Authorities said the MV Thomas Aquinas ferry sank within 10 minutes of the crash. The cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Its steel bow had caved in on impact, but it sailed safely to dock.
Meanwhile, leaking oil from the vessel added a new front to the disaster response, spreading for more than 5km and into coastal villages, fishing grounds and mangroves.