CEBU – Philippine rescuers battled rough seas Sunday in a bleak search for 85 people missing in the country’s latest ferry disaster, but hopes were fading of finding any survivors.
Thirty-four people have been confirmed killed after the ferry, carrying more than 800 passengers and crew, sank almost instantly on Friday night following a collision with a cargo ship outside a major port in the central city of Cebu.
Stormy weather forced an early suspension of search and rescue operations with a few hours of daylight remaining on Saturday, and similar conditions hampered rescuers on Sunday.
Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic said the weather had prevented divers from reaching the interior of the sunken vessel, where many of those missing were believed trapped. But rescuers would make every effort to get inside.
“It is possible that there are air pockets in its compartments and there might be survivors,” Fabic told AFP, adding people could survive for 72 hours in such conditions.
“There is still hope that there might just be survivors there.”
The number of people officially listed as missing was sharply reduced on Sunday to 85 from 170 due to tallying issues rather than any fresh rescues.
The number of missing was cut after those involved in the search reconciled their figures, said Neil Sanchez, head of the regional disaster management office in Cebu.
Authorities were unable to say how many people may be in the sunken ship, which is at a depth of about 30 meters (98 feet), raising hope the number of missing could be reduced further.
Divers found the bodies of a man and a woman as they searched the outer reaches of the vessel on Sunday morning, Jaypee Abuan, a navy spokesman aboard one of the patrol craft, told AFP, lifting the known death toll to 34.
But stormy weather and strong currents throughout the day prevented a full-scale dive mission. Abuan said rescuers had been unable to get into the ship’s interior by late Sunday afternoon, nearly two days after the accident.
“The time element is crucial. We need to fast-track diving operations to reach the inner compartments,” he said.
Meanwhile, navy vessels, coastguard personnel in rubber boats and volunteer fishermen scoured about three square kilometers (1.8 square miles) of water outside the port for anyone who may still be floating.
While saying that all hope had not yet been lost, authorities cautioned that the odds of finding any more survivors were low.
“We are still hopeful, although you have to accept the reality that their chances of survival are very slim,” Sanchez told reporters.
Survivors and people with relatives still missing waited at the Cebu ferry passenger terminal and a local hospital on Sunday for news of loved ones.
“I cannot explain what I am feeling. It is painful, but I continue to hope,” said Nanette Condicion, 44, who survived by jumping on to the cargo ship but lost her elder sister and 71-year-old father in the chaos.
“I am staying here to wait for them, dead or alive. I am not going to leave unless I see both of them.”
The ships collided as they were traveling in opposite directions at a well-known choke point near the mouth of Cebu’s port.
Authorities said the MV St. Thomas Aquinas ferry sank within 10 minutes of the crash.
The cargo ship Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Its steel bow had caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.
Government regulator the Maritime Industry Authority said both vessels had passed safety checks and were seaworthy, indicating human error was to blame for one of the ships going into a wrong lane.
Ferries are one of the main forms of transport across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, particularly for the millions too poor to fly.
But sea accidents are common, with poor safety standards and lax enforcement typically to blame.
The world’s deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred near the capital Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 4,300 people.