MANILA, Philippines – Rescuers battled huge waves and strong winds Sunday to reach a ferry that capsized during a deadly typhoon in the Philippines a day earlier, but found no immediate signs of the more than 740 passengers and crew.
Coast guard frogmen who managed to get to the stricken ship got no response when they rapped on the hull with metal instruments, then had to give up for the night due to the strong waves.
“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,” coast guard spokesman Lt.-Cmdr. Arman Balilo said.
Rescuers hoped to get inside Monday, likely with U.S. assistance requested by the Philippine Red Cross. Typhoon Fengshen has killed at least 137 people across the sprawling archipelago, setting off landslides and floods, and knocking out electricity.
So far, 10 people from the ferry are known to have made it to land. Six bodies, including those of a man and woman who had bound themselves together, have washed ashore, along with children’s slippers and life jackets.
Officials were checking reports that a large number of survivors might have reached one nearby island and that a life raft was spotted off another, coast guard spokesman Cmdr. Antonio Cuasito said.
“We can only pray that there are many survivors so we can reduce the number of casualties,” he said.
About two dozen relatives went to the Manila office of ferry owner Sulpicio Lines. Some wept 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, which was going from Manila to Cebu.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo talked to officials in a teleconference aired live on radio Sunday, scolding coast guard officials for allowing the ferry to leave Manila late Friday despite the bad weather.
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 around 11:30 a.m. Saturday. About 30 minutes later, the ship began tilting so fast that 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 initially ran aground a few kilometres off central Sibuyan island Saturday, then capsized, said Mayor Nanette Tansingco of Sibuyan’s San Fernando. With the upturned ferry visible from her town, she appealed for food, medicine and embalming fluid.
The nearly ferry – with 626 passengers and 121 crew members on board – was “dead in the water” after its engine failed around noon Saturday, coast guard chief Vice-Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said.
The storm stymied attempts to reach the ship and kept aircraft at bay Saturday before shifting course Sunday to the northwest and battered Manila at dawn. Major streets were flooded, and numerous traffic lights were out.
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,” Tupaz said.
Pope Benedict said Sunday he was praying for the victims of the ferry disaster, particularly the large number of children aboard. The Philippines is predominantly Catholic.
The typhoon-prone Philippines was the site of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster when the ferry MV Dona Paz sank in 1987, killing more than 4,341 people.