By Manuel Mogato
CEBU, Philippines (Reuters) – A Philippine ferry sank after colliding with a cargo vessel killing at least 24 people and leaving nearly 300 missing, the coast guard said on Saturday.
Some 572 people were rescued after Friday’s accident at the mouth of a channel approaching the port of Cebu in the central Philippines, said the coast guard.
“We are still looking for 274 people,” acting coast guard chief Rear Admiral Luis Tuason told local radio. “There are still so many missing and the suspicion is there may be some people left inside the ship.”
Scores, sometimes hundreds, of people die each year in ferry accidents in the Philippines, an archipelago of 7,100 islands, which has a notoriously poor record for maritime safety.
Overcrowding is common, and many of the vessels are in bad condition. The country is also hit by several typhoons each year. The weather was clear during the accident, officials said.
Tuason said divers were preparing to search the ferry’s interior. The coast guard was checking if dozens of fishing boats which helped in the search and rescue operation had taken survivors to shore without reporting back to authorities.
Tuason said there were 870 crew and passengers on board the ferry, above the 692 on the ship’s manifest. The ferry had requested a change in its approach to port minutes before the accident, he said, but it was unclear if the cargo vessel had agreed.
The captains of the two ships were alive but had yet to be questioned, Tuason said.
The 40-year-old ferry, St Thomas of Aquinas, is allowed to carry up to 904 passengers. It sank minutes after colliding with the cargo vessel about a kilometer off Cebu at around 9 p.m. (1300 GMT).
“It happened fast, we felt that the cargo ship hit us and minutes later we noticed our ship was listing,” passenger Aldrin Raman told reporters. “I grabbed a life vest and jumped overboard. I saw many passengers doing the same.”
One of the crew said the ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision.
“The collision left a gaping hole in the ferry and water started rushing in, so the captain ordered abandon ship,” the crew member told the radio station. Most of the passengers were already wearing life jackets before the ship sank, he said.
Another passenger, Jerwin Agudong, said several people had been trapped. “It seems some were not able to get out. We saw dead bodies on the side,” he said.
The Philippines was the site of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster in December 1987. A ferry, the Dona Paz, sank after colliding with a tanker in the Sibuyan Sea, killing 4,375 on the ferry and 11 of the tanker’s 13-man crew.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Nick Macfie)
[Image: A rescuer carries an infant child survivor of the passenger vessel MV St Thomas Aquinas that sank after colliding with a cargo ship, to a hospital in Talisay, Cebu in central Philippines August 17, 2013. REUTERS/STRINGER]