- accident - Philippines
AFP - Nine people were confirmed dead and dozens remained missing after a ferry carrying nearly 1,000 passengers sank in darkness off the southern Philippines on Sunday, officials said.
In the latest tragedy to hit the Philippines' notoriously dangerous maritime industry, survivors reported mass panic as the Superferry 9 began listing sharply well before dawn.
"They told us to stay calm but we could see no sign of rescue. Not for two hours," survivor Manuel Malicsi told radio station RMN.
The coast guard in Manila said in a statement that nine bodies had been brought in so far by rescue boats and newly-arrived fishing vessels.
However Zamboanga coast guard chief Commodore Rudy Isorena said the death toll might rise to 12 if reports of more fishing boats bringing in dead bodies proved accurate.
"We are waiting for these fishing boats. Once they come in, we can confirm the reports," Isorena said.
Civil defence executive officer Glen Rabonza said in Manila that 931 people had been confirmed rescued so far from the 964 passengers and crew on the ship's updated manifest.
However Isorena said it was too early to say exactly how many were still missing due to the possibility that the lists of survivors were inaccurate.
"We're still consolidating the names and trying to screen them. There might be double-entries," he said.
The search meanwhile continued into the night with government vessels and private boats continuing to scour the waters.
"We are searching all possible areas," coast guard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said in a radio interview.
Tamayo offered hope for the relatives of those still missing, saying some may have drifted away in life rafts or been picked up by private boats that took part in the rescue.
At Zamboanga City, stunned survivors could be seen disembarking from the boats that rescued them, many of them still half-naked and bare-foot after leaping into the water.
The ferry issued a distress call around 3:30 am (1930 GMT Saturday), 11 kilometres (seven miles) off the coast of Zamboanga peninsula and some 19 hours into its journey from General Santos City.
Philippine Maritime administrator Elena Bautista warned that criminal charges would be filed if negligence were found to be to blame.
Commodore Isorena said the cause of the accident was not yet clear and the weather in the area had not been too bad.
However tropical storm Dujuan, off the Philippines' northeast coast, has heightened the seasonal southwest monsoon winds, bringing rough weather across the country, according to the weather bureau here.
Deadly ferry accidents are common in the Philippines, especially during the typhoon season.
Ferries form the backbone of mass transport in the archipelagic nation of 92 million people.
Aside from bad weather, poor maintenance, overcrowding of vessels and lax enforcement of regulations have also contributed to disasters.
The coastguard report said the Superferry 9, a steel-hulled vessel made in Japan in 1986, had a legal capacity of 1,120 passengers and crew.
Authorities and passengers said some people had jumped into the water in panic as the vessel began to tilt to one side, while others were able to get into life boats.
"The ship shifted suddenly and some people just panicked," Roger Sicharon, one of the passengers from the stricken vessel, earlier told DZMM radio by mobile phone as he waited to be transferred to another ship by life raft.
The world's deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred south of Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 4,000 people.
In June 2008, a huge ferry, "Princess of the Stars" capsized during a typhoon off the central island of Sibuyan, leaving almost 800 dead.