Monday, June 23, 2008

Desperate hunt for Philippine ferry survivors continues

Philippine rescue teams battled furious seas and high winds 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 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.

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 harbor, 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-ton ship issued a distress signal on Saturday afternoon from near Sibuyan, about 150 kilometers (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.

28 survivors of ferry sinking named

Twenty-eight passengers who were rescued from the ill-fated MV Princess of the Stars have been identified, authorities said Monday.

Several of the survivors rescued in Mulanay, Quezon on Sunday were Rey Paquin, Danilo Deplansa, Richelle Tayuntong, Gerry Pelenor, Philip Vasquez, Ralph Alain de la Peña, Carlo Jason Aravis, Rodel Caborte, Philip Gilig, Jose Marie Garbo, Ciriaco Nuñez, Reynante Tadena, Imperio Pendun, Jonathan Pendun, Antonio Cosepp, Ruel Libot, Estanislao Terra Jr., Jessie Ray Blanco, all residents of Cebu.

The others were Uriell Luguban of Zamboanga del Sur, Niño Lauros of Bohol, Ruperta Yan of Cagayan de Oro City, Fausto Colis of Bicol region, Francisco Batola of Cubao, Quezon City, Vicente Bernas of San Mateo town in Rizal province, Susan Lesbo of Novaliches, Quezon City, Minerva Torecacha of Bohol, Ronnie Relativo of Makati City, and Nilo Daygo of San Pedro, Laguna.

Senior Superintendent Fidel Posadas, Quezon Police Provincial Office director, said fishermen were also able to rescue two more ferry passengers in Catanauan town. Posadas identified the two as Alex Eleuterio Kipti and Rene de la Cruz Graciano, both residents of Barangay Mabini, San Pascual town in Masbate province.

Marlon Rosas of Romblon province, meanwhile, said he and other residents were also able to rescue four ferry passengers. He identified them as Oliver Amorin of Lapu-Lapu City, Jessie Buot of Siquijor Island, Renato Lanoria of Bantayan, Cebu, and another man from Mandaue City.

The victims were also on board the ferry when it left North Harbor in Manila on Friday. It sank off Sibuyan Island in Romblon province on Saturday.

The Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy have launched rescue operations in waters off Romblon and Quezon provinces.

The Department of Transportation and Communications has ordered all ferries of Sulpicio Lines grounded because of an ongoing inquiry of the Board of Marines regarding the latest ferry sinking.

9 bodies found in Masbate shoreline

The mayor of Balud, Masbate said residents found nine bodies along the town's shoreline over the weekend.

Nine bodies of possible passenger of the Sulpicio Lines' MV Princess of the Stars, which sank off Sibuyan Island in Romblon province have been found in Masbate province, a local chief executive said Monday.

Mayor Ruel Benisano said the decomposing bodies have been buried after residents complained about the smell. The mayor said pictures of the bodies were taken for future reference of the Coast Guard to help identify the bodies.

He said the victims may be passengers of the Princess of the Stars since the area where it sank is only an hour and a half ride away from Balud town.

Benisano added that residents were also able to rescue a fisherman. He said that according to the fisherman, he had six companions when his fishing boat capsized at the height of typhoon Frank on Saturday.

The PCG had said that it has accounted five other bodies, all recovered from Quezon province.