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By Romeo Ranoco
SIBUYAN ISLAND, Philippines, June 26 (Reuters) - Relatives said goodbye to their missing kin at the site of a capsized ferry in the central Philippines on Thursday fearing they will not see them again; dead or alive.
Hundreds of corpses are believed trapped in the seven-storey Princess of the Stars, which ran aground and flipped over with 865 passengers and crew on board during Typhoon Fengshen on Saturday.
The overall death toll from the sixth typhoon to hit the Philippines this storm season could top 1,300, including nearly 500 people killed in a torrent of flooding in the centre and south of the archipelago.
The United States, the Philippines’ former colonial master, has led international aid efforts and the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier, cut short a visit to Hong Kong. It is currently moored several miles off Panay island, one of the worst-hit areas.
The ferry capsized off Sibuyan island and panicked passengers had little time to get off. The vessel capsized less than half an hour after the ship started listing.
"Most of the women, children and elderly were left behind in the sinking ship. They were afraid to leave because of the strong winds and gigantic waves," Jesus Gica, one of just 56 survivors, told Reuters.
"They all went down with the ship."
Mark Anthony Barrozo’s 4-month-pregnant girlfriend was on board.
After a Catholic priest said mass on a coast guard ship close to the site of the ferry, Barrozo shouted "Forgive me" before dropping to his knees in grief.
Other relatives threw white flowers and wept.
U.S. and Philippine divers have so far retrieved 18 bodies but the operation is painstaking due to narrow corridors, floating debris, darkness and the ship’s precarious position wedged on a rocky ledge.
A decision to bore a hole in the side was again postponed for safety reasons.
ISOLATED FOR DAYS
Sailors from the U.S. aircraft carrier are shuttling water, rice and medical supplies to more than 1.4 million evacuees.
"It has really speeded things up and from the reactions we have gotten from people who have started to receive the goods, they are very happy," said Manuel Mejorada, the provincial administrator in Ilolio on Panay Island.
"Most of them have been isolated for days since the typhoon."
Rescue efforts were, however, concentrated on the Princess of the Stars, which is likely to become the Philippines’s biggest shipping disaster since the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker in 1987, killing more than 4,000 people.
Sulpicio Lines, which owns the Princess of the Stars, also owned the Dona Paz.
Around 130 corpses, including a toddler, have been found in the water and have also washed up on beaches.
But with at least nine other vessels sunk in Saturday’s typhoon, disaster officials are having trouble identifying where they came from.
Rescuers, meanwhile, are struggling to deal with the mass of bodies from the ferry. Television showed a dump truck unloading a large bag of bodies into a shallow grave.
"We have buried the bodies because we have no choice," said Eduardo Andueza, a mayor from the island of Masbate, where dozens have washed up.
Shipping tragedies are common in the Philippines, where safety rules are poorly implemented and substandard vessels ply dangerous waters.
An inquiry has begun into the Princess of the Stars disaster and the coast guard station commander in Manila has been removed from his post while it proceeds. (Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Rosemarie Francisco in Manila and Manny Mogato in Cebu; Writing by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by David Fogarty)