Rescue ship reaches stricken ferry; typhoon death toll at 80

GMANews.TV

MANILA, Philippines – Worried relatives wept Sunday as they awaited news of more than 800 passengers and crew aboard a ferry that capsized as Typhoon “Frank” (Fengshen) swamped the Philippines, killing more than 80 people and submerging entire communities.

A rescue ship battling huge waves and strong winds reached the “MV Princess of Stars,” one end jutting out of the water upside-down, more than 24 hours after it lost radio contact Saturday. But there was no sign of survivors, and only three people who were aboard the ferry were known to have reached shore alive.

“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. Senior Grade Arman Balilo said.

Villagers found four bodies — including a man and a woman who bound themselves together — along with children’s slippers and life jackets that washed ashore nearby.

The national death toll included 59 people who drowned in the central province of Iloilo, with another 40 missing, Gov. Neil Tupaz said.

“Almost all the towns are covered by water. It’s like an ocean,” Tupaz said, adding thousands have been displaced in the province that is home to 1.7 million people.

TV footage showed rescuers using a long rope across raging floodwaters in an Iloilo village to pluck three residents to safety from atop a partly engulfed van. In a nearby village, residents pulled a body from a muddy field then laid it beside another they found earlier.

The ferry initially ran aground a few kilometers off central Sibuyan island Saturday, then capsized, said Mayor Nanette Tansingco of Sibuyan’s San Fernando.

At least three survivors were found in Sibuyan’s Mabini village and police were ordered to go there. But all the roads to the village, where many houses were washed away by huge waves, were blocked by toppled trees, Tansingco told dzBB radio.

She appealed for food, medicine and formalin to embalm bodies, apparently expecting many deaths in her town. The upturned ferry could be seen from her town, she said.

The typhoon lashed the central Philippines for about four hours Saturday, setting off landslides and floods, knocking out power and blowing off roofs.

Packing sustained winds of 120 kilometers per hour and gusts of up to 150 kph, the typhoon shifted course Sunday to the northwest and battered Manila at dawn, dumping heavy rain on the capital. Major streets were flooded, and numerous traffic lights were out.

Rescue vessels aborted an initial attempt Saturday to get to the 23,824-ton ferry. Efforts resumed in stormy weather Sunday, coast guard chief Vice Adm. Wilfredo Tamayo said, although the churning sea kept smaller vessels away. Four coast guard ships and three from the navy were deployed, and the air force was asked to send aircraft as soon as the weather clears.

The ferry was “dead in the water” after its engine failed around noon Saturday, Tamayo said.

About two dozen relatives trooped to the Manila office of Sulpicio Lines, some quietly weeping as they waited for news about their loved ones.

“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.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo directed the defense department and local governments to be on standby for relief and rescue missions before she left for the United States late Saturday.

Arroyo later talked to officials in a teleconference aired live on nationwide radio, scolding coast guard officials for allowing the ferry to leave Manila late Friday despite the bad weather.

Ferries are the main form of inter-island transportation in the sprawling Philippine archipelago, site of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster when the ferry MV Dona Paz sank in 1987, killing more than 4,341 people.

In southern Maguindanao province, at least 14 people drowned in flash floods Saturday, including 10 swept away from riverside homes, said provincial administrator Norie Unas. Five others were missing.

A man and his 10-year-old grandson were killed when a landslide buried their hillside shanty in Cotabato city Saturday, Mayor Muslimin Sema said. – AP

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