Hunt for Philippine ferry survivors

June 23, 2008 12:00 am

, MANILA, June 23  – Philippine rescue teams battled furious seas and high winds on Monday in a desperate hunt for more survivors of a ferry that went down in a typhoon at the weekend with 747 people aboard.

Only the tip of the bow of the Princess of the Stars remains above water after it tilted and quickly capsized on Saturday, and navy frogmen have found no sign of life aboard the doomed vessel just off the central island of Sibuyan.

But a local radio station said 28 more people had turned up alive when their lifeboat reached a coastal village, raising the number of survivors so far to 32, and there were hopes more would be found on the many tiny islands nearby.

Reports of more survivors comes as a US navy ship is heading to the Philippines to help search for hundreds of people missing in the weekend ferry disaster, a government official said on Monday.

The ship was heading to the Philippiunes from a US base in Japan and would arrive on Tuesday in the area where the ferry sank in heavy seas, deputy presidential spokesman Anthony Golez told reporters.

Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross, told CNN rescuers remained hopeful of finding people, saying many were apparently wearing life jackets.

"We have not lost hope that there might be more survivors," said coast guard chief Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo.

But several bodies have also washed up on shore along with children’s shoes, heightening fears for the worst. Anxious relatives waited at the Manila offices of the ferry company, Sulpicio Lines, waiting for news — and answers.

It was the company’s fourth disaster at sea in the past two decades, and the transportation department slapped an immediate ban on further sailings.

"Definitely, Sulpicio Lines is responsible here," said Transport Undersecretary Elena Bautista.

The Princess of the Stars had been allowed to sail despite Typhoon Fengshen bearing down because, under current Philippine law, the vessel was large enough to stay afloat in the periphery of the storm.

But Fengshen tragically made a sudden change of direction from north to west, and headed directly into the ferry’s path. The powerful storm has since also killed almost 230 people on land.

The captain tried to get the vessel to safe harbour, but it ran aground. There were conflicting reports that he had slowed the engines in the face of the storm and that the engines had given out.

The almost 24,000-tonne ship issued a distress signal on Saturday afternoon from near Sibuyan, about 150 kilometres (100 miles) south of Manila. One survivor said there was almost no time to react.

"It seemed like everything happened in 15 minutes," Reynato Lanorio, one of the crew, told DZBB radio. "Next thing we knew, the ship had gone under."

The station reported that 28 more people were found alive after surviving in a lifeboat. Survivors said 30 had been in the boat but two were lost at sea — one tossed overboard by large waves just minutes before they made it to safety.

"The search and rescue effort resumed at first light today," navy spokesman Eduardo Arevalo told DZBB. "If we can’t find anyone on the water, we will also have the capability to go underwater."

There were 80 more divers en route to the site as well as a second vessel with cutting equipment, but the rescue effort was hampered by the bad weather. Aircraft were also helping with the search.

Countless people in this impoverished nation rely on relatively inexpensive ferries to get around the country’s 7,100 islands, and Sulpicio Lines is one of the biggest of the ferry companies.

It has had at least three other major accidents since 1987, when its Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker. Around 4,000 people were killed, one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history.

President Gloria Arroyo has ordered regulatory authorities to change the rules that allowed the Princess of the Stars to set sail with the typhoon nearby, her spokesman Jesus Dureza said.


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