Children feared dead in major ferry disaster

Hundreds of passengers were feared trapped and may have died after their ferry capsized in the Philippines during Typhoon Fengshen, said two survivors who struggled ashore today.

The storm left at least 137 dead, submerging entire communities and setting off landslides, said Richard Gordon, head of the national Red Cross. He earlier reported that 155 had died, but said some bodies had been counted twice.

However, there are concerns the death toll will rise dramatically.

Hundreds of people listed as missing do 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 this afternoon, one end jutting out of the water upside-down, more than 24 hours after it lost radio contact. There was no sign of survivors at the site, 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,” coastguard Arman Balilo said.

Cebu coast guard spokesman Antonio Cuasito said several frogmen swam to the ship and knocked on the hull with metal instruments “but there was negative response”.

He said the search-and-rescue operation was suspended for the night because of big waves.

“If weather permits tomorrow, they will try to penetrate” inside the vessel, he 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 lift raft was spotted off another, Cuasito said.

“We can only pray that there are many survivors so we can reduce the number of casualties,” he said.

Reynato Lanoria, a janitor 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 local time yesterday. 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 yesterday, 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.

Pope Benedict said today he was praying for the victims of the ferry disaster, particularly the large number of children aboard. The Philippines is predominantly Catholic.

The typhoon lashed the central Philippines for about four hours yesterday, 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 today 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.

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