CEBU CITY, Philippines—Rescue operations for survivors were temporarily called off late Saturday afternoon due to heavy rains and strong waves in the vicinity of Lawis Ledge in Talisay City, Cebu, where the MV St. Thomas Aquinas with 841 people reported on aboard sunk after colliding with a cargo vessel.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, officials of the Philippine Coast Guard, city administrators and owners of the St. Thomas Aquinas reported 32 dead, at least 58 still missing while 751 (645 passengers and 106 crew members) had been rescued.
Earlier Coast Guard deputy chief, Rear Admiral Luis Tuason received reports the ferry carried 752 passengers and a crew of 118, a number higher than the 841 reported by ferry owner 2Go. The figures of the missing have yet to be verified.
The 11,405-ton St. Thomas Aquinas, which was on its way to the Cebu port, sank minutes after it collided with the 9,691-ton Sulpicio Express Siete, which was leaving the port.
No one was hurt among the 36 crew members on board the cargo vessel, which was heading to Davao.
The captain of the ferry ordered the ship abandoned when it began listing. Many passengers jumped into the sea with life vests. But many may still be trapped in the ship, which sank about 200 meters, Tuazon said.
It is also feared some 140,000 liters of oil on the ship may leak into Cebu waters.
Tuason said Navy divers who recovered four bodies from the underwater wreck, about two kilometers from shore, saw the bodies coated in fuel and oil that had spilled from the ferry.
“There could be more bodies there, but there was a rope inside that our divers could get entangled in,” Tuason said.
He said that the Coast Guard will send more divers with deep-water equipment to help retrieve bodies.
Lt. Mark Anthony Colina, team leader of the Naval Special Operations Unit, said they were preparing oxygen tanks and a portable decompression chamber, among other things, for the resumption of the rescue operations.
Six technical divers arrived from Palawan to assist in the operations after it was determined that the vessel had sunk about 200 meters down, he said.
Korean technical divers also volunteered to help but Colina said they had not yet arrived.
Cebu Coast Guard Station Commander Weniel Azcuna said they needed technical divers with proper equipment that could last for more than 10 minutes under water, to have more time in searching the area.
The St. Thomas Aquinas of 2Go had come from Nasipit and was bound for Manila, after a short stop in Cebu.
In a statement, 2Go belied insinuations that the vessel was overloaded, saying its official manifest showed that the vessel had 723 passengers and 118 crew on board and 104 20-footer container vans.
The vessel has an authorized capacity of 1,010 passengers and crew and 160 units of 20-foot containers.
In a statement, 2Go said that after the collision, the crew of the St. Thomas Aquinas distributed life jackets to the passengers and carried out emergency abandon-ship procedures.
At the same time, the ship’s officers sent a distress signal to the nearest Philippine Coast Guard station to alert it to immediate rescue operations.
In a separate statement, the owners of the cargo ship, Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. (PSACC), said the management decided it was best not to issue any more statements until an official investigation was concluded and the findings released to the public.
“We would like to point out, however, that our ship’s crew rescued 183 passengers and 33 crew of the downed ship and as of this moment, we are doing whatever we can to help in the ongoing rescue efforts,” it said.
The management also said it would be best to allow maritime officials to conduct their investigation and await their findings.
Azcuna said they could not yet determine which vessel was at fault since the focus now was on the search-and-rescue operation.
Bong Ebo, of Cosmopolitan Funeral Homes, said the fatalities were 19 females including two children, aged between 2 and 4; and 12 males including a one-year-old boy.
Ebo identified 10 of the victims as Domingo Anonat, 68, of Agusan del Norte; Niceta Fancu ,74, Surigao City; Teohines Jabines, 69, Opon, Davao Oriental; Armida Manalon, 58, Agusan del Sur; Hilario Milagro, 53, Nasipit; Lolita Butao, 52, Butuan City; Alfonso Camanso; Jonathan Cabural; Romulo Escropolo and Artemia Bonota of Surigao City.
Lito Salvio, spokesman and assistant vice president of 2Go Group, said they were helping the victims of the sunken ship.
They were being housed at the 2Go passenger terminal and two nearby hotels. They were being provided with food, clothes and medicines.
The company was also arranging transportation for survivors whose final destination was Manila.
The relatives of the survivors were also being accommodated.
A list of names was posted outside their terminal.
Salvio said that the vessel was 40 years old and was formerly owned by Super Ferry. The 2Go Group acquired the vessel in 2011 after the merger with Negros Navigation, Aboitiz Transport and 2Go Group.
In the meantime, 2Go engaged the services of Malayan Towage, an expert in oil spills. Oil spill equipment such as an islander tug had been dispatched in coordination with the Philippine Coast Guard.
Azcuna said the Marine Environmental Protection Unit of the PCG was handling the operation to stop any oil spill in the area.
They had deployed personnel to the site to spray oil dispersants and chemicals to control any spill. An inspection didn’t indicate any spill.
The initial report received by the Philippine Coast Guard showed that the sunken ship was carrying 20 tons of diesel oil and 120 tons of bunker oil. The PCG said that they were monitoring the vessel to make sure that the oil would not leak.
An oil spill boom of the Coast Guard was also being set up to protect the environment.—With reports from Connie E. Fernandez and Chito Aragon, Inquirer Visayas; Nikko Dizon and Philip C. Tubeza