A ferry carrying more than 700 passengers and crew sank in heavy seas during a typhoon off the Philippines, and many people are feared dead, officials and reports said Sunday.
The MV Princess of the Stars went down several kilometres off the coast of Sibuyan Island after being battered by huge waves overnight when its engines failed, officials said.
Four bodies washed ashore on Sibuyan and three survivors were found, but the death toll is likely to rise with the fate of the rest of the passengers and crew unknown, officials and reports said.
Some reports said the vessel began taking water after the hull of the 23,824-tonne ferry developed a hole. Witnesses reported lifejackets from the doomed vessel washing ashore along with the shoes of children and other debris.
The ship, en route from the capital Manila to the central island of Cebu, issued a distress signal on Saturday. A coast guard official said it had been trying to take shelter when the engines failed, leaving it stranded at sea.
"There were many plastic slippers of children also found floating on the shore but no survivors," said Nanette Tansingco, mayor of San Fernando, a coastal town on Sibuyan about 260 kilometres (160 miles) south of Manila.
A police boat reached the site early on Sunday, and officers found the ferry flipped over with only its bow visible above the water line, Tansingco told local radio.
"They reported to me that there was a big hole amidships," the mayor said.
The vessel was one of hundreds that ply the waters in this impoverished nation, where many people rely on inexpensive but sometimes dangerously overloaded ferries to travel between its thousands of islands.
President Gloria Arroyo demanded to know why the ferry was allowed to leave from Manila with the typhoon about to hit the country.
|A huge billboard falls on a warehouse roof in Manila on June 22 because of typhoon, which damaged a ferry carrying more than 700 passengers.|
"I want answers," she said from on board the presidential plane en route to the United States.
Typhoon Fengshen swept through the central Philippines on Saturday, leaving 60 people dead elsewhere and another 60 missing as heavy rains and strong winds triggered floods and landslides that destroyed buildings.
Tens of thousands of people were also left stranded from the flash floods, while power was also knocked out to towns.
As search and rescue boats headed to the sunken ferry, residents of San Fernando said wreckage, apparently from the vessel, was coming ashore.
"Life jackets and debris litter the shore. I saw a dead woman in her 40s along the shore but she was the only body I saw. There is no one else," resident Melanie Rotoni told DZMM radio.
Coast guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said the ship's manifest listed 626 passengers and 121 crewmen, revising down an earlier number of more than 800 on board.
Regional coast guard official Cecil Chen said the Princess of the Stars was cleared to leave Manila on Friday morning shortly before the typhoon changed its northwesterly course and raked across the western islands.
With the typhoon approaching, the captain was instructed to take shelter and "attempted to do that," Chen said.
However, the engine failed and the vessel was left stranded in the water off Sibuyan's southeast coast.
"The engine conked out and (with) the vessel dead on the water and no immediate assistance could be rendered on the vessel. It suffered the consequence of drifting to the shallow portion and was grounded," he said.
Congressman Eleandro Madrona, the legislator representing Romblon province, reported to the civil defence office that the captain of the ferry "issued the order to abandon the vessel ... after the hull was holed and water entered the engine room."
The three survivors floated ashore and were found by police in coastal villages near San Fernando, Tansingco told DZMM radio.
Madrona said it was "possible there are survivors" who managed to swim to safety on the tiny island of Cresta de Gallo southeast of San Fernando.