Survivors, bodies from sunken ferry found in Philippines

Philippine rescuers on Monday held out hopes of finding more survivors from a passenger ferry with more than 850 people aboard that sank in stormy seas at the weekend. While Navy rescuers found no signs of life inside the capsized MV Princess of the Stars, 53 passengers and crew reached nearby shores after drifting on inflatable life rafts for 24 hours, bringing the total number of survivors to 57, reported dpa.

Four survivors were earlier found on Sibuyan Island, 300 kilometres south of Manila, where the ship capsized on Saturday after being battered by huge waves and strong winds spawned by Typhoon Fengshen.

"We are still optimistic that more survivors were just swept away to nearby areas," said Navy spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo. "We do not want to create false hopes, but we always want to stand optimistic."

Arevalo said Navy rescuers found no signs of life when they reached the sunken ship, with only part of its bottom still above water.

"We approached the ship and knocked on the hull so that, if someone was inside, to tell them that someone is outside to help them," he said. "We were hoping someone would knock back. Unfortunately, there was none."

Twenty people were confirmed dead after their bodies washed ashore on nearby islands and provinces, according to Commodore Luis Tuason, chief of Manila Coast Guard.

Local officials reported 14 more bodies had been found on the shores of Masbate province, just east of Sibuyan Island, but authorities were still verifying whether these fatalities were aboard the Princess of the Stars.

Dozens of fishing boats were also reported missing in the central Philippines at the height of Typhoon Fengshen, which has killed at least 186 people.

"We were forced to bury the cadavers in shallow graves because of the foul smell," Eduardo Andueza, mayor of Claveria town in Masbate, told a Manila radio station. "Many of the bodies were already bloated and decomposing."

Search and rescue operations were suspended for the evening.

"We'll stop for the moment because of the big waves and because we don't have night-capable equipment," Arevalo said.

The United States was dispatching a vessel with rescue helicopters aboard from Okinawa, Japan, and a surveillance aircraft to help in the search. The USNS Stockham was expected to arrive in the area on Tuesday.

The Princess of the Stars was carrying 751 passengers and 111 crew when it sank, said Sally Buaron, vice president of the Sulpicio Lines, which owns the ferry. Eighty-one of the passengers were children.

Buaron said the company was still trying to determine whether more passengers were aboard the ship, but had not been included in the official manifest.

The almost 24,000-ton ship was licensed to carry 1,992 people, she said, adding that the ferry had never been involved in any accidents before in its 24-year history.

The government has grounded all vessels of the Sulpicio Lines pending an investigation into the accident.

It was the company's fourth ship to have sunk since 1987, when its passenger ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker just before Christmas, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster.

Twenty-eight survivors reached the shores of Mulanay town in Quezon province, 150 kilometres south-east of Manila, aboard an inflatable life raft late Sunday, police Senior Superintendent Fidel Posadas said.

Twenty-five survivors were also found on Burias Island in Masbate province on Monday, the coastguard said.

The life raft that reached Mulanay initially carried 30 people but two fell overboard during the rough journey, Posadas said.

Susan Lesbo, one of the life raft survivors, told local television that they were able to reach shore because some of their companions were seamen.

"We were successful because the seamen knew how to manoeuvre the raft," she said.

Jonathan Rendo, another survivor, added that they had all helped each other through the harrowing ordeal.

"We knew that we had to be strong together because, if not, we will all die," he said, holding back tears.

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