There are fears that the death toll from Typhoon Fengshen would leap dramatically today after reports that more than 700 people are missing after a ferry capsized.
Two men who struggled to shore from the stricken passenger ferry said hundreds of people may have died when they were trapped inside.
The storm left at least 155 dead in the Philippines, submerging entire communities and setting off landslides, said Senator Richard Gordon, head of the national Red Cross, but there were concerns the death toll would jump markedly.
The 72 people listed as missing did not include the more than 740 passengers and crew aboard the MV Princess of Stars, and worried relatives wept as they waited for news. Mr Gordon said he has asked US authorities for help in finding anyone who might still be alive inside the ferry and was told “they are going to try very, very hard”.
A rescue ship battling huge waves and strong winds reached the ferry today, one end jutting out of the water upside-down, more than 24 hours after it lost radio contact. There was no sign of survivors, and only four people who were on board were known to have reached shore alive.
“They haven’t seen anyone. They’re scouring the area. They’re studying the direction of the waves to determine where survivors may have drifted,” coast guard spokesman Lieutenant Senior Grade Arman Balilo said.
Villagers found six bodies – including a man and a woman who had bound themselves together – along with children’s slippers and life jackets that washed ashore nearby.
Officials were checking reports that a large number of survivors might have reached one nearby island and that a life raft was spotted off another, coast guard spokesman Commander Antonio Cuasito said.
“We can only pray that there are many survivors so we can reduce the number of casualties,” he said.
Reynato Lanoria, a caretaker on the ship, estimated about 100 people could have survived, “but the others were trapped inside”.
“I think they are all dead by now,” he told DZMM radio after making it to shore by jumping in the water and reaching a life raft.
Mr Lanoria said he was on the top deck when a crew member ordered people to put on life vests around 11:30am Saturday. About 30 minutes later, the ship tilted as elderly people and children fell on the rain-slickened deck.
Passenger Jesus Gica also worried that many people were trapped below when the ship listed.
“There were many of us who jumped overboard, but we were separated because of the big waves,” he said. “The others were also able to board the life rafts, but it was useless because the strong winds flipped them over.”
The ferry initially ran aground a few miles off central Sibuyan island on Saturday, then capsized, said Mayor Nanette Tansingco of Sibuyan’s San Fernando.
With the upturned ferry visible from her town, she appealed for food, medicine and formalin to embalm bodies.
The typhoon lashed the central Philippines for about four hours on Saturday, setting off landslides and floods, knocking out power and blowing off roofs.
In the central province of Iloilo, Governor Neil Tupaz said 59 people drowned, with another 40 missing.
“Almost all the towns are covered by water. It’s like an ocean,” Mr Tupaz said, adding that thousands have been displaced in the province that is home to 1.7 million people.
Packing sustained winds of 74 miles per hour and gusts of up to 93 mph, the typhoon shifted course on Sunday to the north-west and battered Manila at dawn, dumping heavy rain on the capital. Major streets were flooded, and numerous traffic lights were out.
Rescue vessels aborted an initial attempt on Saturday to get to the 23,824-ton ferry. Efforts resumed in stormy weather today, coast guard chief Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said, although the churning sea kept smaller vessels away. Four coast guard ships and three from the navy were deployed, and the air force was asked to send aircraft as soon as the weather clears.
The ferry – with 626 passengers and 121 crew members on board – was “dead in the water” after its engine failed around noon on Saturday, Mr Tamayo said.
About two dozen relatives trooped to the Manila office of Sulpicio Lines, some quietly weeping as they waited for news about their loved ones.
“I’m very worried. I need to know what happened to my family,” said Felino Farionin, his voice cracking. His wife, son and four in-laws were on the ferry.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who left for the United States late on Saturday, talked to officials in a teleconference aired live on nationwide radio today, scolding coast guard officials for allowing the ferry to leave Manila late on Friday despite the bad weather.
Ferries are the main form of inter-island transportation in the sprawling Philippine archipelago, site of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster when the ferry MV Dona Paz sank in 1987, killing more than 4,341 people.