At least three people drowned and more than 800 terrified passengers, many roused from their sleep, were rescued early Sunday from a ferry that listed and then sank in the southern Philippines, officials said. More than 80 people were missing.
Coast guard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said 880 of 968 passengers and crewmen on board the Superferry 9 were transferred to two nearby commercial ships and a navy gunboat hours after the ferry began to list off Zamboanga del Norte province before dawn.
A search was under way for more than 80 people who remained missing, Tamayo said, adding that they may have drifted with their life jackets or have been rescued but were not yet listed as survivors.
“We really hope they’re just unaccounted for due to the confusion,” Tamayo told The Associated Press.
Navy ships were deployed and three military aircraft scoured the seas, Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said. American troops providing counterterrorism training to Philippine soldiers in the region deployed a civilian helicopter and five boats, some carrying paramedics, to help, U.S. Col. William Coultrup said.
Teodoro said three passengers, including a child and a man, drowned during the scramble to escape the ship. Three other passengers were injured, the coast guard said.
The cause of the listing was not clear. The ferry skipper initially ordered everyone on board to abandon the ship as a precautionary step, said Jess Supan, Vice-president of Aboitiz Transport System, which owns the steel—hulled ferry.
There were reports that the ferry listed to the right due to a hole in the hull, the National Disaster Coordinating Council said. As the 7,268—ton ferry tilted, some passengers may have panicked and jumped into the water, the coast guard said.
Passenger Roger Cinciron told DZMM radio by cell phone that he felt the ferry was tilting around midnight but he was assured by a crewman that everything was well. About two hours later, he was roused from sleep by the sound of crashing cargo below his cabin, he said.
“People began to panic because the ship was really tilting,” he said as he waited for rescuers to save him and a group of more than 20 other passengers.
The ferry left the southern port city of General Santos on Saturday and was scheduled to arrive in Iloilo city in the central Philippines later Sunday but ran into problems midway and began to list about nine miles (15 km.) from the nearest shore, Tamayo said.
There were no signs of possible terrorism, Tamayo said.
Al—Qaida—linked Abu Sayyaf militants bombed another Superferry in Manila Bay in 2004, setting off an inferno that killed 116 people in Southeast Asia’s second—worst terrorist attack.
The weather was generally fair in the Zamboanga peninsula region, about 530 miles (860 km.) south of Manila, although a tropical storm was battering the country’s mountainous north, the coast guard said.
Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of tropical storms, badly maintained boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations.
Last year, a ferry overturned after sailing toward a powerful typhoon in the central Philippines, killing more than 800 people on board.
In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.