UP to 800 passengers were feared trapped and may have died after their ferry capsized in the Philippines during Typhoon Fengshen, said two survivors who struggled to shore yesterday.
The storm left at least 155 dead, submerging entire communities and setting off landslides, said Richard Gordon, head of the national Red Cross, but there were concerns the death toll would jump dramatically.
The 72 people listed as missing did not include the up to 845 passengers and crew aboard the MV Princess of Stars.
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, 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,” said coast guard spokesman Lt Senior Grade Arman Balilo.
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, said coast guard spokesman Cmdr Antonio Cuasito.
“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.
Lanoria said he was on the top deck when a crew member ordered people to put on life vests about 11.30am on 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 ran aground a few miles off Sibuyan island on Saturday, then capsized, said Mayor Nanette Tansingco of Sibuyan’s San Fernando.
With the upturned ferry visible, she appealed for food, medicine and formalin to embalm bodies.
Pope Benedict XVI said yesterday he was praying for the victims of the ferry disaster.
The typhoon lashed the central Philippines for about four hours on Saturday.
In the central province of Iloilo, Gov Neil Tupaz said 59 people drowned, with another 40 missing.
“Almost all the towns are covered by water. It’s like an ocean,” said Tupaz, adding that thousands have been displaced in the province that is home to 1.7 million people.
Packing sustained winds of 119km per hour and gusts of up to 150kph, the typhoon shifted course yesterday to the northwest and battered Manila at dawn, dumping heavy rain on the capital.
Rescue vessels aborted an initial attempt on Saturday to get to the 23,824-ton ferry. Efforts resumed in stormy weather on Sunday, coast guard chief Vice Adm 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 on board — was “dead in the water” after its engine failed, said Tamayo.
About two dozen relatives trooped to the Manila office of Sulpicio Lines, some weeping as they waited for news.
“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 US on Saturday, talked to officials in a teleconference aired live on nationwide radio yesterday, scolding coast guard officials for allowing the ferry to leave Manila despite the bad weather.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved