CEBU SEA TRAGEDY | 31 dead, 172 missing

A Philippine Coast Guard auxiliary prepares to retrieve a bag floating at the site where the ferry MV Thomas Aquinas sank after colliding with a cargo ship off Cebu (Vic Kintanar/
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CEBU CITY, Philippines -- (UPDATE 3 - 5:35 p.m.) The bodies of at least 31 passengers of the ill-fated ferry MV St. Thomas Aquinas have been retrieved but 172 remained missing Saturday afternoon, Cebu Governor Hilario Davide III said.

Quoting ferry operator 2Go Shipping Lines, Davide said 629 passengers and crew had been rescued as of 2 p.m. Saturday.

But the total from Davide’s figures -- 832 -- did not tally with what the Philippine Coast Guard said was the 752 passengers -- 666 adults, 28 children and 58 infants -- and a crew of 118 listed on the Thomas Aquinas’ manifest.

Saturday afternoon, Navy divers suspended efforts to reach the submerged vessel because "it rained hard ... with strong winds and rough seas," Navy spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic, told AFP.

He also said powerful currents had earlier prevented divers from assessing all of the sunken ferry to determine how many people had died and were trapped inside the vessel.

Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the coastguard, cautioned the death toll would inevitably rise.

"The captain managed to declare abandon ship and they distributed life jackets but, because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside," he said, adding the ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision.

The St. Thomas Aquinas collided with the cargo ship MV Sulpicio Express 7 in the vicinity of Lawis Ledge, Talisay City around 9:03 p.m. Friday.

The ferry, which came from Butuan City, sank just two kilometers from the port of Cebu City, where it was headed to pick up more passengers before sailing to Manila, Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, PCG vice commander, said.

The 40-year-old ferry St Thomas of Aquinas of the 2Go shipping company is allowed to carry up to 904 passengers.

2Go executive vice president Bimsy Mapa said the freighter, which had a crew of 36, was headed for Davao City, struck the rear end of the ferry with its bow, although witnesses described the collision as "head-on."

One witness told that after the collision, the bow of the ferry dipped under the water and then the vessel “did a 360-degree somersault, spinning for around 10 minutes before eventually sinking.”

Photos by Vic Kintanar,

One survivor, Maribel Manalo, 23, recounted to her brother the horror of suddenly being plunged into the cold water in darkness, and emerging from the chaos without her mother.

"She said there was a banging noise then the boat suddenly started sinking," the brother, Arvin Manalo, told AFP.

"They quickly strapped on life jackets and then jumped into the dark sea. She said they felt like they were pulled under. My sister said she pushed our mother up, but they got separated.

"My sister was rescued. My sister knows how to swim, but my mother does not."

He said their mother, 56, remained missing.

Several survivors of the tragedy complained of having “drank crude oil.”

Medical personnel in Talisay City, where many of the survivors were first brought, as well as fishermen who helped in the rescue efforts, had to bathe rescued passengers to remove the oil from their bodies before taking them to hospitals.

The response of local government units, down to the barangay level, as well as nongovernmental organizations and private individuals to the sea mishap was generally swift.

Local fisherman Mario Chavez told AFP he was one of the first people to reach passengers after the ferry sank in the 82-meter-deep (270-foot) channel.

"I plucked out 10 people from the sea last night. It was pitch black and I only had a small flashlight. They were bobbing in the water and screaming for help," he said.

"They told me there were many people still aboard when the ferry sank ... there were screams, but I could not get to all of them."

Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels had violated rules on which lanes they should use when travelling in and out of the port, without specifying which one.

The enforcement office chief of the government's Maritime Industry Authority, Arnie Santiago, said the strait leading into the Cebu port was a well-known danger zone.

"It is a narrow passage, many ships have had minor accidents there in the past. But nothing this major," Santiago told AFP.

"There is a blind spot there and each ship passing through needs to give way in a portion of that narrow strip."

Ferries are one of the main modes of transport across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, particularly for the millions of people too poor to fly.

But sea accidents are common, with poor safety standards, lax enforcement and overloading typically to blame.

The world's deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred near the capital, Manila, in 1987 when ferry Dona Paz laden with Christmas holidaymakers sank after colliding with the tanker Vector in the Sibuyan Sea, killing 4,375 on the ferry and 11 of the Vector's 13-man crew.

In 2008, a huge ferry capsized during a typhoon off the central island of Sibuyan, leaving almost 800 dead.

In June, seven people died when another roll-on, roll-off ferry mysteriously sank in calm waters in the central Philippines.

Senator Grace Poe said she would seek an investigation into the ferry tragedy.

"We will get to the bottom of how this tragedy happened, who must be held responsible, and the need for urgent reforms," she said in a statement. With a report from Jaime Sinapit and Ernie Reyes,, Cecil Morella, Agence France-Presse and Manny Mogato, Reuters