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12 bodies recovered from sunken ferry

By Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:07:00 10/27/2008

Filed Under: Sulpicio ferry disaster, Maritime Accidents

MANILA, Philippines?It wasn?t a pretty sight. Some limbs had been detached. Flesh was decomposing. Still, several bodies remained intact.

Divers retrieved 12 bodies in all Sunday inside the capsized MV Princess of the Stars at the start of recovery operations four months after a strong typhoon sank the seven-story ferry off Sibuyan Island in Romblon province.

The bodies were taken out of Deck C, the economy section, of the Sulpicio Lines vessel, which flipped over after it sailed into the path of Typhoon ?Frank? (international codename: Fengshen) on June 21 while en route from Manila to Cebu City.

?There are four bodies still intact. One body was headless . . .,? said Dr. Renato Bautista, chief of the National Bureau of Investigation?s Disaster Victims Identification unit.

Some of the bodies recovered have missing limbs and disintegrating flesh, Bautista told a news conference in San Fernando town on Sibuyan.

?In the video, some of the bodies still have clothes on. But as far as personal effects, the video was very, very blurred,? he said.

According to the Philippine Coast Guard, the 23,000-ton ferry carried 864 people aboard, only 57 of whom survived. Around 350 bodies had been recovered, but the rest remained unaccounted for.

Retrieval operations, which were suspended in early July, resumed after divers had removed a cargo of the toxic pesticide endosulfan from the ship that was submerged 120 feet at the deepest level.

Many more bodies inside

Citing reports from the divers, Rodrigo Bella, project manager of Harbor Star, one of the salvor companies contracted by Sulpicio Lines for retrieval operations, said divers found many other bodies inside the cabins.

Prior to the retrieval, the divers cleared the debris and broke open the windows of the portholes and cabins to facilitate the removal of the cadavers.

The officials could not say how many passengers were trapped inside the ship.

The Coast Guard had said there were still 515 people missing from the tragedy and that most of them were believed to have been trapped inside the capsized vessel.

?We could not give 100 percent guarantee that all 515 missing are in the ship. But Sulpicio has promised to search the entire ship,? said Transportation Undersecretary Elena Bautista who also heads the task force coordinating retrieval operations.

2-week operation

Bella said that retrieval operations could last for at least two weeks, depending on the weather condition. He also noted that it was too dark inside the wreckage.

?We promise that we will search the entire ship and get whatever we can,? he said.

Harbor Star has 16 divers. The team is augmented by the Coast Guard, which has a ship in the area.

The divers use netted body bags to secure the cadavers undersea. The divers tag the bags and send them to the NBI officials aboard the Sulpicio Lines? MV Tacloban Princess, which is anchored a few meters from the sunken ferry.

So far, officials said divers had managed to scour up to 60 feet underwater.

At 60 feet, divers are allowed to dive up to one hour. When they get to 100 feet and beyond, they are allowed only 10-15 minutes undersea.

DNA samples

Doctor Bautista said that despite the advanced state of decomposition, it would still be easy to get DNA samples from the remains for identification.

?What we are doing is to ensure that the whole body, at least the bones including the skull, are all intact. If not intact, as much as bones as possible,? the NBI official said.

Doctor Bautista said the DNA matching, which was assisted and funded by the Interpol, would be done in the International Commission for Missing Persons laboratory in Sarajevo in Bosnia. Samples in batches of 100 will be sent and results are expected within two or three weeks.

He appealed to family members who have not yet sent samples of their DNAs to the NBI to present themselves to authorities in Manila or Cebu.

The Princess of the Stars tragedy was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent years. The Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI), which conducted an investigation of the incident, blamed the captain and Sulpicio Lines for the disaster.

According to the BMI, the captain miscalculated the risks when he left Manila despite storm warnings. The BMI also said Sulpicio Lines should be held liable because it did not stop the boat from leaving the Manila port.

Mass, floral offering

Earlier, a Mass was held in a makeshift chapel near the shore at the start of the retrieval, but none of the relatives was present there. Some 150 residents on the island attended the event.

Later, the residents and local officials threw red daisies in the water and prayed for the dead.

?The sympathy is overwhelming. Every now and then we offer prayers,? said San Francisco Mayor Nanette Tansingco.



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