CEBU, Philippines, Aug 17 – Philippine rescuers searched Saturday for more than 200 people missing after a crowded ferry collided with a cargo ship and sank almost instantly in darkness, with 28 already confirmed dead.
The St Thomas Aquinas ferry was carrying 870 passengers and crew when the accident occurred late on Friday night in a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines’ second biggest city, authorities said.
Coastguard and military vessels, as well as local fishermen in their own small boats hauled more than 600 people out of the water alive.
But by early Saturday afternoon, 213 people were still unaccounted for and 28 bodies had been retrieved, according to the coastguard, which warned the death toll would inevitably rise.
“It did not take long, about 10 minutes, before the ferry sank,” Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the coastguard, said on DZBB radio.
“The captain managed to declare abandon ship and they distributed life jackets but, because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside.”
One survivor, Maribel Manalo, 23, recounted to her brother the horror of suddenly being plunged into the cold water in darkness, and emerging from the chaos without her mother.
“She said there was a banging noise then the boat suddenly started sinking,” the brother, Arvin Manalo, told AFP.
“They quickly strapped on life jackets and then jumped into the dark sea. She said they felt like they were pulled under. My sister said she pushed our mother up, but they got separated.
“My sister was rescued. My sister knows how to swim, but my mother does not.”
He said their mother, 56, remained missing.
Fifty-eight babies were among the passengers on board the ferry, according to the coastguard, and it was unclear how many of them survived.
The accident occurred at 9:00 pm (1300 GMT) in calm waters near the mouth of the port between two and three kilometres (around one to two miles) from shore, authorities said.
Navy divers on a speed boat scoured the sea on Saturday amid orange life rafts that had already been mostly emptied, according to an AFP photographer on the scene.
However two lifeless bodies were seen on one raft.
Tuason said helicopters had also been deployed and specialist divers sent to search through the sunken vessel.