Death toll rises to 38 in Cebu ships’ collision; 82 missing

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CEBU CITY—Rescuers counted 38 bodies and upped the number of missing people to 82 on the second day of search and rescue operations following a ship collision off Talisay City, Cebu, on Friday night.

Thirty-two bodies had been found on Saturday while divers retrieved five more from the sunken MV St. Thomas of Aquinas on Sunday. Of the 751 earlier reported survivors, one died Sunday—a child who has yet to be identified.

The number of missing was earlier estimated at 58 based on the manifest released on Saturday by 2GO Group Inc., the ferry owner, showing 841 passengers and crewmembers on board. But on Sunday, 2GO released a “supplemental manifest” that brought the total number of people on the ill-fated ferry to 870.

After almost 48 hours of search and rescue operations, some of the rescuers feared the toll from the collision may yet reach 120.

But Cebu Coast Guard station commander Weniel Azcuna said he had not given up the search for the missing passengers of the ferry that collided with a cargo vessel, the Sulpicio Express Siete, in the Mactan Channel off Lawis Ledge, just 3.2 kilometers from port.

“We are still on search and rescue mode … we are not losing hope. There’s still a possibility that we can find survivors somewhere,” Azcuna said.

He said three simultaneous underwater search operations were being conducted by Philippine Navy and police divers, while Air Force and Coast Guard helicopters scoured the surface for passengers still clinging to debris. Several civilian rescue groups and fishermen have also joined the search.

Azcuna said they feared that some missing passengers were trapped inside the vessel. Technical divers were needed due to the risk in going inside the sunken vessel, which was lying 30 meters deep.

Recovered bodies were taken to the Talisay Fish Port, where the command center for the retrieval operation had been set up.

Only 22 of the 38 bodies now at the Cosmopolitan Funeral Homes on Junquerra Street in Cebu City have been positively identified by their relatives.

2GO said the vessel’s authorized capacity was 1,010 passengers and crew, and 160 6-meter containers.

Coast Guard deputy chief Rear Adm. Luis Tuason said divers were also trying to plug a fuel leak to prevent oil from spilling into the sea.

Azcuna said the St. Thomas of Aquinas skipper, Capt. Reynan Bermejo, survived the accident and was on a rescue ship helping look for survivors.

Bermejo was expected to submit his marine protest on Sunday.

The 36 crew of the Sulpicio Express Siete headed by Capt. Rolito Gilo had been instructed to stay on their vessel, which was docked at Pier 5, and were ordered to cooperate with the special board of marine inquiry, which will be held in Manila after the completion of the search and rescue operation.

Gilo submitted a marine protest, but Azcuna said he had yet to go into the details of the document.

Azcuna said the licenses of both the captains and the crew of the vessels were suspended by the Maritime Industry Authority because of the accident.

Meanwhile, relatives flocked to a ticketing office of ferry owner 2GO Group Inc. and put up pictures of their missing loved ones.

Others, like Richard Ortiz, waited quietly and stared blankly at the vast sea from the Talisay pier, where Coast Guard and Navy rescuers were encamped.

“I just want to see my parents,” said Ortiz, who clutched a picture of his father and mother. “This is so difficult.”

Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya said on Saturday there were foreigners among the ferry passengers and all were fine, except for a New Zealand citizen who was taken to hospital.

Abaya said the cargo vessel, which was leaving the Cebu pier, smashed into the right or starboard side near the rear or stern of the ferry, which was coming in from Nasipit and making a short stop in Cebu before proceeding to Manila.

Outbound and incoming ships are assigned separate routes in the narrow passage leading to the busy Cebu pier. An investigation would determine if one of the vessels strayed into the wrong lane and sparked the accident, which happened in relatively calm weather, Coast Guard officials said.

“There was probably a nonobservance of rules,” Melad told a news conference in Cebu on Sunday, suggesting human error may have been a factor in the accident. He stressed, however, that only an investigation would show what really happened.—With reports from Carine Asutilla, Inquirer Visayas; AP

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