Rescuers search sea for Philippine ferry survivors

Rescuers scoured the rough seas around a capsized ferry in the central Philippines on Monday in a desperate search for more than 800 people still missing after it sank two days ago in a deadly typhoon.

Coast guard boats searched the area around the 23 824-gross-tonne ferry and divers were expected to drill into the side of the vessel where they hope survivors might be alive in air pockets.

Typhoon Fengshen, with maximum gusts of 195km/h, has killed at least 159 people in central and southern Philippines, with the western Visayas region, famed for its sandy beaches and sugar plantations, the worst affected.

It pounded the archipelago, damaging thousands of houses, rice stores and displacing tens of thousands of people.

”We got hit real bad this time,” said Richard Gordon, the chairperson of the Philippines’ Red Cross.

The typhoon is currently over the South China Sea and is expected to move northwards towards Taiwan in the next few days according to the Tropical Storm Risk website.

Twenty-eight passengers and crew were the most recently found survivors of the ferry disaster, having landed at a small coastal village after drifting for more than 24 hours in a rubber boat, radio dzBB reported.

Two others originally on the life raft drowned in large swells.

”We are checking whether there were people trapped inside the ferry,” Vice-Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo, the head of coast guard, said. ”We might have to drill holes so our divers can access it.”

Philippine transport authorities said on Monday they had grounded the vessels of ferry company Sulpicio Lines for inspection. The company’s ships have been involved in three other major disasters over the past 21 years.

Emotional Catholic mass
Monday’s 28 survivors brings the total number to 32. Four people were confirmed dead on Sunday. Sulpicio Lines on Sunday revised the number of people on the MV Princess of Stars to 845 from an initial estimate of more than 740.

Fearing the worst, some relatives of the 845 people on board raged at officials while waiting for news in the central city of Cebu, where the Princess of Stars was meant to dock.

”You can’t bring our loved ones back. You should be held responsible,” one distraught woman told employees of the company.

Survivors of the ferry disaster spoke of pandemonium when the Princess of Stars suddenly lurched onto its side on Saturday.

”What I just did was to float in the water,” a man identified only as Jesse told local radio after he washed up at a nearby coastal village.

”There were others who rode in the lifecraft. But it was no use, the waves were big so they capsized also.”

In Cebu, around 100 relatives, many crying, listened as the names of the survivors were read out.

During an emotional Catholic mass, one man pounded the wall in grief over his missing son.

Officials from Sulpicio Lines declined to speak to the crowds.

In 1987, the Sulpicio-owned Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker killing more than 4 000 people in the world’s worst peacetime sea tragedy.

The death toll from the Princess of Stars may be higher as relatives waiting in Cebu gave the names of 11 people suspected of being on the ship but not listed on its passenger manifest.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in the United States for a state visit, held a video conference with disaster officials early on Monday and said coast guard protocols should be reviewed to prevent another vessel sailing into a typhoon’s path.

In Iloilo province, 101 people were reported dead after flood waters over two metres high engulfed communities, forcing tens of thousands to scramble onto the roofs of their homes.

More than 30 000 people were being housed in evacuation centres in the centre and south of the archipelago.

An archipelago of more than 7 000 islands, the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year. – Reuters

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