June 22, 2008 / 7:08 AM / 10 years ago

Philippine ferry sinks; 700-plus passengers missing

(Adds survivor account, new death toll from typhoon)

By Manny Mogato and Rosemarie Francisco

MANILA, June 22 (Reuters) - Rescuers braved rough seas on Sunday searching for survivors of a Philippine ferry that capsized with more than 700 passengers and crew during a typhoon that has killed scores and left a trail of destruction.

So far, only four people are known to have survived and they said many passengers did not make it off the MV Princess of Stars in time.

Others who plunged into the heaving waves lost consciousness and some life-rafts capsized.

"Many of us jumped, the waves were so huge, and the rains were heavy," a survivor identified only as Jesse told local radio.

"There was just one announcement over the megaphone, about 30 minutes before the ship tilted to its side."

"Immediately after I jumped, the ship tilted, the older people were left on the ship."

It is unclear exactly when the ferry capsized but the coast guard knew on Saturday the vessel was in trouble but could not reach the area because of high seas and bad weather.

Four people have been confirmed dead but most of the 620-plus passengers and 121 crew remain missing. According to the ship’s manifest, there were 20 children and 33 infants on board.

A coastguard ship is trawling the waters around the 23,824 gross tonne vessel, which is upside down with only its bow above the waves.

The vessel sank 3 km (two miles) from Sibuyan island in the centre of the archipelago.

The head of the coastguard said there were lots of small islands where survivors could be sheltering.

"I’m hopeful that more passengers and crew have reached the shore," Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo told Reuters.

He said two more rescue boats would be dispatched as soon as the weather improves.

The vessel’s owner, Sulpicio Lines, said it had lost contact with the ferry, which was en route to Cebu from Manila, at around 12.30 p.m. (0430 GMT) on Saturday.

Dozens of relatives, some in tears, crowded into the offices of Sulpicio Lines in the central city of Cebu, looking for information.

"My father was one of the passengers. Right now there is no good news," said Lani Dakay. "My father is 59, I don’t even know if he can swim."

"WORST DISASTER"

Typhoon Fengshen, with maximum gusts of 195 kph (121 mph), has killed at least 155 people in central and southern Philippines, including 101 in Iloilo province, where floodwaters submerged whole communities.

"Iloilo is like an ocean. This is the worst disaster we have had in our history," Governor Neil Tupaz told local radio.

Tens of thousands of people in the province remain marooned on the roofs of their submerged houses.

In neighbouring Capiz, more than 2,000 houses were destroyed in the provincial capital and officials were struggling to make contact with communities further afield.

"The flooding is massive. Roads are impassable so we cannot penetrate the municipalities. Some areas are in waist-deep waters, only 10-wheeler trucks can be used," said Maria Barnes, the social welfare and development officer of the local government.

After pelting Manila with torrential rain and winds on Sunday, Fengshen is expected to exit the northern part of the country by Monday en route to Taiwan, where it could make landfall in the next few days, according to storm tracker website www.tropicalstormrisk.com.

Fengshen tore up houses, trees and power lines and in the southern city of Cotabato, it sparked a "trash slide" at a rubbish dump, killing an 8-year-old girl and her grandfather.

More than 20,000 people were being housed in evacuation centres in the centre and south of the archipelago.

In Manila, large parts of the city were without power and passengers crammed into the international airport waiting to see when flights would be resumed after cancellations and delays.

An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year and has a long history of sea disasters.

More than 3,000 people died in 1987 when an inter-island ferry and an oil tanker collided south of Manila in the world’s worst peace-time sea tragedy. (Writing by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by David Fogarty)



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