Philippine, US divers in grim search for bodies in sunken ferry

More than 100 Philippine and US divers on Wednesday resumed the grim search for bodies trapped in a sunken ferry with more than 740 people still missing and feared dead. ( dpa )

At least 70 people were confirmed killed in the Saturday sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, 300 kilometres south of Manila. Forty-eight survived the accident.

Most of the bodies of the confirmed fatalities had washed ashore in nearby islands and provinces, where communities have buried the decomposing cadavers in mass graves.

Some bodies were found floating in waters around Sibuyan Island and inside the ferry's hull.

Around 30 more bodies were spotted Wednesday floating in open sea by a US reconnaisance aircraft, according to Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo.

Arevalo said a Philippine Navy ship also retrieved three bodies on a nearby beach.

"The bodies were wearing life vests," he said. "They appeared to have died struggling, due to hypothermia. They could have jumped from the ship but they did not reach the life rafts."

Around 10 divers from the US military ship the USNS Stockham joined 93 Filipino frogmen in retrieval operations in the submerged ferry, which was carrying 862 people.

Philippine officials admitted that the prospects of finding more survivors were bleak.

"The chances of getting live passengers and crew are getting slimmer," Lieutenant Commander Rogelio Villanueva of the Coast Guard said.

"We are racing against time to save lives and retrieve bodies as soon as possible before they reach an advanced state of decomposition," he added.

Authorities have put off plans to cut through the exposed bottom of the ship in a bid to speed up the search due to security risks.

The Coast Guard warned that an estimated 100,000 litres of bunker fuel still on board could spill.

Experts also warned that cutting through the ship could change its balance, and plunge it deeper into the seas. The wreckage is currently perched on a reef 60 feet below sea level.

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

The company's ships and ferries have been involved in some of the country's worst maritime disasters.

In 1987, its passenger ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker just before Christmas, killing 4,341 people in the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster.

In October 1988, another Sulpicio Lines ferry sank during a typhoon, killing 250 people. In 1998, another of the company's ships sank, leaving 70 dead and 80 missing.

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