MANILA, Sept 6 – Three people were killed and dozens were left missing after a ferry carrying hundreds of passengers sank off the southern Philippines on Sunday, officials said.
Coast guard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said at least 88 people remained unaccounted for after 880 passengers and crew were rescued from the stricken Philippines-flagged Superferry 9.
"We are still trying to account for 88 persons. We have rescued 880 but our search and rescue operations continue. We are searching for all possible areas like the coastal areas," near the site of the sinking, said Tamayo in a radio interview.
"Navy ships, airforce aircraft are still scouring the area," he said.
The ferry got into trouble before dawn and issued a distress call around 4:00 am (2000 GMT Saturday), six nautical miles off the coast of Zamboanga peninsula in southern Mindanao island.
The boat sank several hours later as rescue operations were under way. Three people were known to have died, Tamayo and other officials said.
Tamayo said a team of navy ships and two nearby civilian vessels had gone to the scene and 880 passengers and crew had been pulled to safety.
He added that some of those who were unaccounted for may have been picked up by private boats that took part in the rescue or may have drifted away in life rafts.
Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said local officials were checking to see if any survivors had already reached shore.
Those rescued were being taken to the trading port of Zamboanga City, around 70 nautical miles away so they can receive assistance, said Jess Supan, vice-president of the ferry company.
At least two of those killed were reported to have died while the ferry was still afloat.
Earlier, authorities said some people had jumped into the water in panic as the vessel began to list to the right.
Regional coastguard chief Commodore Rudy Isorena said the cause of the accident was not yet clear and the weather in the area had not been too bad.
"We cannot say yet as to the cause as the attention right now is being given to the search and rescue of passengers," he said.
"The ship shifted suddenly and some people just panicked," Roger Sicharon, one of the passengers from the stricken vessel, earlier told DZMM radio by mobile phone as he waited to be transferred to another ship by life raft.
"The crewmen are skilled. I trust them," he said, adding that the sea had calmed down after sunrise. He said the ship started listing just after 2:00 am (1800 GMT Saturday).
Tropical storm Dujuan, off the Philippines’ northeast coast, has heightened the seasonal southwest monsoon winds, bringing rough weather across the country, according to the weather bureau here.
Ferries, from large steel-hulled ones such as the Superferry 9 to small wooden dugouts with bamboo outriggers, form the backbone of mass transport in the archipelagic nation of 92 million people.
Deadly accidents are common especially during the typhoon season in the middle of the year. Poor maintenance, overcrowding of vessels and poor regulations have also contributed to the frequent maritime disasters.
The world’s deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred south of Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 3,000 people.
In June 2008, a huge ferry, "Princess of the Stars" capsized during a typhoon off the central island of Sibuyan, leaving almost 800 dead.
In the last major incident, 12 people were killed after a small ferry sank in rough waters south of Manila in May.