31 Dead in Cebu ship collision

Manila, Philippines --- Transportation and maritime officials suspended yesterday search and rescue operations for the 171 missing passengers of ferry boat MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 that sank in the cold waters off Talisay City in Cebu after colliding with cargo ship Sulpicio Express 7 late Friday night due to bad weather. The Cebu collision left at least 31 people dead.

MV Sulpicio Express 7 hit the right rear side of MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 which caused it to have a hole and sink, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said.

In its latest bulletin, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said that as of 3 p.m. yesterday, 667 passengers and crew members had been rescued - 629 from the passenger ship MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 and 38 from the cargo vessel MV Sulpicio Express 7.

Authorities said the collision happened at the vicinity of Lauis Ledge, Talisay City, at 9:03 p.m. Friday in calm waters near the mouth of the Cebu port between two and three kilometers from shore. In 10 minutes, the passenger ferry sank.

2GO, Suplicio

Ships Suspended

Following the collision, Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) Administrator Maximo Mejia Jr. ordered yesterday the immediate suspension of all ships belonging to Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. (formerly Sulpicio Lines), owner of MV Sulpicio Express 7; and 2GO Shipping, owner of MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 so they can be inspected by authorities.

Mejia said although the two shipping companies' papers are in order and that the involved ships' structural integrity and stability are not in question, Marina deemed it necessary that all their vessels undergo rigid inspection to ensure their seaworthiness.

He said an order was issued to all Marina regional chiefs to do the inspection of the two companies' ships within their areas of jurisdiction.

Mejia said he convened yesterday morning a maritime crisis management committee wherein they conducted an initial investigation on the incident.

Marina will conduct an investigation into the incident to determine who is at fault and that measures be done to prevent similar incidents from happening.

Conflicting Number

Of Passengers

The NDRRMC said MV Thomas Aquinas 1 had 831 people on board - including 715 passengers and 116 crew members - while Sulpicio Express 7 was carrying 38 crew at the time of the collision.

But Lt. Cdr. Gregory Fabic, the Philippine Navy (PN) spokesman, said that based on the ship's manifest, there were 870 people on board, including 752 passengers and 118 crew members. Of the 752 passengers, 666 were adults and 58 were infants.

However, in a statement, 2GO Group said the official passenger manifest of MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 showed it had 723 passengers and 118 crew or a total of 841 people and 104 20-foot container units. The vessel has an authorized capacity of 1,010 passengers and crew and 160 units of 20-foot containers.

Officials said 442 of those rescued were taken to Pier 4 passenger terminal, 60 to Sugbutel, 68 to Capitol City Medical Center, 29 to Chong Hua Hospital, 10 to Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center, 10 to Perpetual Hospital, and 10 to Cebu Doctors Hospital.

58 Babies On Board

While the PN said that 58 infants were among the passengers on board the ferry, the Cebu Coast Guard said there were 55 infants or children aged 3 below.

Fabic said based on the ship's manifest, 870 people on board, including 752 passengers and 118 crew members.

Fabic said the PN dive team in Cebu "has already located the sunken vessel (MV St. Thomas Aquinas) and started retrieving bodies underwater."

Fabic added PN technical divers with equipment who are currently in Palawan are now waiting for the C-130 aircraft from Villamor Airbase that will bring them to Cebu.

Minda Morante, director of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in Central Visayas, said MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 left Nasipit port around 12 noon and was expected to dock in Cebu past 9 p.m. Friday. However, 2GO Groups said MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1's estimated time of arrival in Cebu was at 10 p.m.

But Morante said the Coast Guard received a distress call from the passenger ferry a little past 9 p.m. as it was passing through Lauis Ledge in Talisay City.

The NDRRMC said that at 9:03 p.m. Friday, MV Thomas Aquinas 1 collided MV Sulpicio Express 7.

"It did not take long, about 10 minutes, before the ferry sank," Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, said on DZBB radio.

"The captain managed to declare abandon ship and they distributed life jackets but, because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside."

Horror Recounted

One survivor, Maribel Manalo, 23, recounted to her brother the horror of suddenly being plunged into the cold water in darkness, and emerging from the chaos without her mother.

"She said there was a banging noise then the boat suddenly started sinking," the brother, Arvin Manalo, told AFP.

"They quickly strapped on life jackets and then jumped into the dark sea. She said they felt like they were pulled under. My sister said she pushed our mother up, but they got separated.

"My sister was rescued. My sister knows how to swim, but my mother does not."

He said their mother, 56, remained missing.

Navy divers on a speed boat scoured the sea on Saturday amid orange life rafts that had already been mostly emptied, according to an AFP photographer on the scene.

However two lifeless bodies were seen on one raft.

Tuason said helicopters had also been deployed and specialist divers sent to search through the sunken vessel.

Screaming For Help

Local fisherman Mario Chavez told AFP he was one of the first people to reach passengers after the ferry sank in the 82-metre-deep (270-feet) channel.

"I plucked out 10 people from the sea last night. It was pitch black and I only had a small flashlight. They were bobbing in the water and screaming for help," he said.

"They told me there were many people still aboard when the ferry sank... there were screams, but I could not get to all of them."

Which Violated Lane Rules?

The cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Television footage showed its steel bow had caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.

Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels had violated rules on which lanes they should use when travelling in and out of the port.

The enforcement office chief of Marina, Arnie Santiago, said the strait leading into the Cebu port was a well-known danger zone.

"It is a narrow passage, many ships have had minor accidents there in the past. But nothing this major," Santiago told AFP.

"There is a blind spot there and each ship passing through needs to give way in a portion of that narrow strip."

The MV St. Thomas Aquinas 1 was a "roll-on, roll-off" ferry, which allows vehicles to be driven aboard and is commonly used in the Philippines. (With reports from AFP and PNA)