CEBU, PHILIPPINES – Philippine rescuers searched Saturday for nearly 200 people missing after a crowded ferry sank almost instantly after a collision with a cargo ship in the dark, with 31 people already confirmed dead.
The ferry MV Thomas Aquinas was carrying 831 passengers and crew members when the accident occurred late Friday night in a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines’ second-biggest city.
Coast guard and military vessels, as well as local fishermen, hauled 629 people out of the water alive.
By Saturday evening, 171 people were still unaccounted for and 31 bodies had been retrieved, according to the coast guard, which warned that the death toll would inevitably rise.
“It did not take long, about 10 minutes, before the ferry sank,” Rear Adm. Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the coast guard, 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,” said the brother, Arvin Manalo. “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.” Their mother, 56, remained missing.
Fifty-eight babies were among the passengers on board the ferry, according to the coast guard, and it was unclear how many of them survived.The accident occurred at 9 p.m. in calm waters near the mouth of the port between 2 and 3 km from shore, authorities said.
Navy divers on a speedboat scoured the sea Saturday amid orange life rafts that had already been mostly emptied. Two lifeless bodies were seen on one raft. Helicopters had also been deployed and specialist divers sent to search through the sunken vessel.
Fisherman Mario Chavez said he was one of the first people to reach passengers after the ferry sank in the 82-meter-deep channel. “I plucked out 10 people from the sea last night. It was pitch black and I only had a small flashlight. They were bobbing in the water and screaming for help,” he said. “They told me there were many people still aboard when the ferry sank. . . . There were screams, but I could not get to all of them.”
Survivors said many of the passengers were asleep at the time of the collision and others struggled to find their way in the dark.
Rolando Manliguis was watching a live band when “suddenly I heard what sounded like a blast. . . . The singer was thrown in front of me.” He rushed to wake up his wife and their two children, but the water was rising fast. “When the boat was on its side, the water level was here,” he said, pointing to his neck. “I thought about my child. It’s a good thing that someone helped us immediately.” They roped down the ferry’s side into the sea and were put on a life raft.
Jerwin Agudong said he and other passengers jumped overboard in front of the freighter after the ferry began taking on water and the crew distributed life jackets.
He said the ferry was approaching the pier when the cargo vessel, which was on the way out of the harbor, suddenly collided with it.
The cargo ship, the MV Sulpicio Express, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Its steel bow caved in on impact but it sailed safely to a dock.
Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels had violated rules on which lanes they should use when traveling in and out of the port.
The enforcement office chief of the government’s Maritime Industry Authority, Arnie Santiago, said the strait leading into Cebu port is a well-known danger zone. “It is a narrow passage. Many ships have had minor accidents there in the past, but nothing this major,” he said.
“There is a blind spot there, and each ship passing through needs to give way in a portion of that narrow strip.”
The Thomas Aquinas was a “roll-on, roll-off” ferry, which allows vehicles to be driven aboard and is commonly used in the Philippines.
Ferries are one of the main modes of transport across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands. But sea accidents are common, with poor safety standards and lax enforcement typically to blame.
The world’s deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred near Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas vacationers collided with a small oil tanker, killing over 4,300 people.