Rescuers search for 29 ferry passengers

MANILA (Updated 2:31 p.m.) – Rescue teams battling strong waves and winds Tuesday pulled four more bodies – all children – from seas in the northeastern Philippines where a ferry capsized, drowning 27, officials said.

Twenty-nine passengers were still missing from the overcrowded, wooden-hulled Maejan after it overturned following an eight-hour journey Sunday, Police Chief Superintendent Roberto Damian said.

Most of the 46 survivors swam or clung to driftwood and other objects until they reached shore in Aparri town in Cagayan province,about half a mile (kilometer) from the site of the accident, police said.

The ferry, loaded with more than 100 people along with a cargo of pigs, cows and water buffaloes, was traveling from Calayan islands in the Luzon Strait when it encountered huge waves and currents that broke its bamboo outrigger, causing it to flip over.

Roel Viernes, who survived the accident with his brothers and cousins, said the 28-ton ferry capsized in just a few seconds after being battered ferociously by huge waves, hurling terrified passengers to the cold water.

“I hope some of my fellow passengers are still alive,” Viernes said, despite dimming hopes of such a prospect.

The rescue operation by Coast Guard and Navy vessels, backed by Air Force helicopters, was suspended overnight but resumed Tuesday despite the rough weather. The search focused on Cagayan’s sprawling coast, Calayan Mayor Joseph Llopis said.

Some relatives waited on shore for any news of missing passengers but many were forced by strong winds to take shelter in an Aparri police station, where rescuers set up a command post.

“It’s hard to accept, but it may be difficult to find survivors now,” Llopis said.

Coast guard chief Vice Adm. Wilfredo Tamayo said Monday the ferry was authorized to carry only 50 people but twice as many packed on board for a trip to buy Christmas food and other holiday supplies.

He said criminal charges will be filed against those who allowed the overloaded Maejan to sail. The ferry’s owner and her daughter were among the dead, police said.

Tropical storms, badly maintained boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations are often the cause of sea accidents in the
sprawling Philippine archipelago.

Last month, a cargo ship sank in rough seas north of Cagayan, and passing vessels plucked 16 of 20 people from shark-infested waters.

Weeks earlier, separate storms capsized two passenger boats in the central Philippines, drowning more than 50 people. (AP)(SunStar)

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