Legazpi City (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Philippines' search and rescue teams on Saturday failed to find the seven missing passengers of the two days after the roll-on roll-off vessel sank off Burias Island in Masbate.
Rescuers from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Philippine Navy and the local Bantay Dagat (sea watchmen) resumed their search-and-rescue (SAR) operation at 6 a.m. on Saturday, scouring the waters off Burias and the shorelines of the coastal villages in Aroroy, Masbate, up to early afternoon, according to Bernardo Rafael Alejandro, regional director of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in Bicol.
Those still missing were identified as Abegail Barredo, 19, and Noan Manocan, 25, both of Mandaon, Masbate; Fe Rapsing and Leticia Andaya, 78, both of Masbate; Ariane and Jonas Comedor and an unidentified person.
"If these seven missing are not found and their bodies don't emerge we can recommend the termination of the search on Sunday," Alejandro said.
After the search and recovery operation ends, authorities led by the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) and the PCG will convene the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) to investigate the sinking.
The BMI will determine if the mishap was caused by "mechanical malfunction or human error," said Alejandro.
Coast Guard personnel have started gathering testimonies from survivors who might stand as witnesses in the marine inquiry, he said.
An initial report to Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, who organized the initial search and rescue effort, indicated that the poor lashing of a bus on board the ferry may have caused the vessel to tilt and sink.
Some survivors said the ferry tilted toward the front right side and quickly capsized more than halfway through its voyage.
Alejandro said 70 passengers and crew, not 57 as earlier reported, were on board the ill-fated ferry when it left the port of Pioduran, Albay, at 2 a.m. on June 14 bound for Aroroy. At least 39 passengers and 22 crew members, including the ship's captain, Lauro Mateo, were rescued.
Two of the passengers, both women in their 50s, were confirmed to have died due to drowning, said Alejandro.
The seven missing passengers were not included in the trip manifest but were reported by their relatives to the PCG to have boarded the boat, Alejandro said.
Navy Ensign John Duruin, PN deputy spokesperson in Bicol, said that aside from two Navy gunboats and an Islander plane, three expert divers joined the search to locate the ferry and the passengers believed to be trapped inside the vessel.
Alejandro said the Navy divers found it difficult to search where the vessel sank exactly since the waters off Burias Pass have a depth of between 700 feet to 1,700 feet.
Divers can only go down to a depth of 20 feet while technical or expert divers are only allowed to dive to up to 120 feet in the absence of special diving equipment, he said.
In Manila, Marina threatened on Saturday to withdraw the franchise of Medallion Transport which operates the Lady of Mount Carmel.
In a statement, Marina Administrator Maximo Mejia Jr. said he would not hesitate to recommend to the Marina Board the revocation of its franchise or Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) if the company is found negligent.
He cited reports from Marina's Cebu office that at least two passengers were not listed in the ship's manifest.
Privilege, not right
Mejia said he had ordered the suspension of the Seafarer Identification and Record Books (SIRBs) of all the ship's crew members pending the results of the investigations.
"The grant of a franchise is not a matter of right but a privilege which can be taken away if public interest so requires. Ship owners have the primary duty to ensure that their ships are fit to withstand the perils of the sea and that their crew possess the required competence to perform specific duties on board ships," he said.
Mejia added he had sent a fact-finding mission to gather information that could be used to file appropriate charges against the company.
He likewise ordered the inspection of all the ships of Medallion Transport to ensure their seaworthiness, especially now that the typhoon season has begun.
To be inspected are the MV Lady Angels, MV Lady of All Nations, MV Lady of Miraculous Medal, MV Lady of Guadalupe-Cebu, MV St. Padre Pio, MV Lady of Sacred Heart and MV Lady Divine Grace.
The Marina said the Lady of Mount Carmel was a 33-year-old steel hulled ship of 98.46 gross tonnage that was built in Japan in 1980. It has an authorized passenger capacity of 212 persons.
According to the PCG, only 35 passengers and the 22 crewmembers were listed in the ship's manifest.
"Clearly, there were passengers whose names were not declared in the manifest," said PCG spokesperson Armand Balilo, adding that three of the seven missing people were on the list, while the four others had claimants.