At least 38 dead as Philippine ferry capsizes; 118 rescued

MANILA: A ferry loaded with nearly 200 people capsized off a central Philippine port today, officials said, killing at least 38 people in the latest of the country’s long string of maritime tragedies.

Up to 33 people are missing after the 33-tonne, wooden-hulled Kim Nirvana tipped over shortly after setting sail from Ormoc city at midday, the coast guard said.

Vegetable trader Reynante Manza, 45, cried as he recounted how the 33-tonne vessel suddenly rolled to one side as it reversed course shortly after backing out of the pier of Ormoc, pulling down his wife and many others under the water.

“It rolled while attempting to turn around swiftly. I am alive because I jumped overboard as soon as it happened,” Manza told reporters.

Just a small section of the boat’s underbelly, surrounded by rescue boats, was visible above water by late afternoon, according to an AFP photographer.

It bobbed above the waves a mere 200 metres from the shore, journalists on the scene said, much closer than the one-kilometre estimate made by local disaster officials earlier.

Rescuers pulled 118 survivors from the sea and continue to scour the deep waters where the accident happened, said Philippine National Red Cross chief Richard Gordon told AFP.

Gordon put the toll at 38 dead and 33 missing, citing the latest figures from rescuers on the scene.

“Some clung on to the hull of the overturned vessel, while some were rescued while swimming towards the shore,” Ciriaco Tolibao, an official from the city’s disaster risk reduction and management office, told AFP.

A distraught male survivor wept openly as crew members clad in blue brought him ashore, as others, looking shaken, recounted their ordeal to rescue officials. A nearby row of soaked survivors squatted on the pier awaiting attention, while medical workers placed the injured onto stretchers and relatives of the missing screamed and cried nearby.

The vessel was carrying 173 passengers and 16 crew members, and was licensed to carry up to 200 people, Tolibao said.

Many of the passengers were traders bringing farm produce and other merchandise to the Camotes island grouping, whose residents rely mostly on fishing, Tolibao added.

The authorities were puzzled how the accident had happened in relatively calm waters, after initial reports of choppy seas, and discounted speculation that it was overloaded.

“There wasn’t any storm or any gale. We’re trying to find out (why it happened),” Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo told AFP.

He said the boat’s outriggers apparently broke in the accident, and added it was possible the crew had committed a navigational error. The Kim Nirvana was on its normal route to the islands, which sit about an hour’s sail from Ormoc city.

Tolibao said at least 53 survivors were brought to the hospital while more than two dozen others walked home.

Poorly maintained, loosely regulated ferries are the backbone of maritime travel in the sprawling archipelago.

Watery grave

•    In 1987, the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 dead

•    Ormoc and the rest of Leyte island was ravaged by Super Typhoon Haiyan which struck in November 2013, leaving more than 7,350 people dead or missing across the central Philippines

•    A 1991 flash flood also killed around 6,000 people in Ormoc in one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters