Rescuers search for missing passengers from the ill-fated ferry. (Photo by Frank Villablanca)
Rough seas on Friday forced Philippines rescuers to suspend the search for more than 20 people still missing a day after a ferry disaster claimed at least 40 lives.
The Kim Nirvana, believed to be carrying 189 passengers and crew, capsized off a central Philippine port on Thursday shortly after setting sail from Ormoc city for its regular run to the Camotes island group, about an hour's sailing away.
"At least 154 people are already accounted for," coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said, adding that 127 passengers were rescued.
"What’s important is for us to account for all the passengers," Balilo said.
Distraught relatives waited at the Ormoc city port on Friday for news of the missing, after a sleepless nighttime vigil, while others checked hospitals and morgues for loved ones.
At the port, 10-year-old Gilbert de la Cruz kept his eyes fixed on the partially submerged wooden hull where his mother, eight-year-old sister and one-year-old brother were believed trapped.
"I'm very sad because I don't know if they are still alive," said the boy, who survived the accident by clinging to empty water drums that kept him afloat until the coast guard rescued him.
"I am never riding a boat again," he said, as his aunt comforted him.
Authorities have said they are puzzled as to how the accident happened.
Survivors have recounted how the 33-ton vessel was backing out of the port when it suddenly overturned, giving them no chance to put on life jackets.
"Big waves" might have caused the ferry to capsize, "but we are still investigating" the incident, said Rey Gozon of the Office of Civil Defense in the Eastern Visayas region.
"We are going to check all angles in the investigation and we will consider everything, including weather," Balilo of the coast guard said.
Coast guard and navy rubber dinghies circled the hull Friday, but no survivors have been found since Thursday afternoon.
Divers stopped their search as the seawaters became turbulent, and the seabed grew murky due to bad weather from Tropical Storm Linfa, said Chief Superintendent Asher Dolina, the police commander overseeing the operation.
Linfa was set to brush past the northern Philippines later Friday.
President Benigno Aquino, meanwhile, has offered his condolences to the victims and their families.
"We mourn with the families of those who lost their loved ones in the incident and assure them a speedy and objective investigation," Aquino said in a statement on Friday.
Caritas Manila on Friday said it would use funds from its Alay Kapwa Lenten program to help the families of victims.
"They can count on our help. We will contact our Church partners in the diocese so we can aid victims," said Fr Anton Pascual, executive director of Caritas Manila.
The Alay Kapwa Lenten program raises funds to support and sustain social action initiatives and other developmental projects of the church. Additional reporting by AFP