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23 dead, 198 rescued in ferry-boat collision

At least 23 people, one of them an infant, were confirmed dead yesterday after a passenger-cargo boat bound for Manila from Palawan sank after it collided with a passenger ferry in the waters off Corregidor island in Manila Bay.


Due to discrepancies in the boat’s passenger manifest, the number of persons missing could not be confirmed as of press time.


A massive search by fishermen and rescuers from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Philippine Navy became a frantic race against time to find the missing before nightfall, even as the Coast Guard said it will continue the search even after dark.


As the day wore on, monsoon rains, strong winds and choppy waters hampered search and rescue operations. During the monsoon season, the waters of Manila Bay are treacherous, characterized by high and vigorous waves and strong undercurrents spawned by intermittent rains and rough winds.


PCG commander Vice Adm. Reuben Lista said a Coast Guard helicopter spotted survivors as far off as the waters off Cavite.


They had, apparently, been dragged there by strong currents spawned by the rising tide and the monsoon rains.


So far, 198 people aboard the sunken M/V San Nicolas survived the mishap and were rescued, according to PCG spokesman Lt. Armand Balilo.


Balilo also said 29 people not listed on the passenger manifest were aboard the boat at the time of the collision.


He said the boat has with capacity for 286 people.


Most of the M/V San Nicholas passengers were businessmen and students returning to Manila for the opening of classes, "but we do not have the names yet," Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes told ANC news.


The collision happened at 11:45 a.m., about one nautical mile off Limbones point, near Corregidor, as the M/V San Nicholas was headed for Manila and the WG&A SuperFerry 12 sailed for Cebu.


Survivor Hilda Custodio told ANC news she, her husband and their two children were separated as they scrambled for life jackets. She has with her one of her children, though her husband and other child are among the missing.


"The area (of the collision) is very dangerous because there are areas of the coastline that are very rocky," Lista told reporters.


Local television showed footage of orange rubber life rafts floating alongside Coast Guard patrol vessels near the anchored SuperFerry 12. Huge waves battered the sides of the ferry amid high winds.


Lista said the Coast Guard already has a copy of the M/V San Nicholas passenger manifest from the San Nicholas Shipping line office in Coron, Palawan, but declined to identify the dead or missing as of press time.


Balilo, on the other hand, told reporters the PCG had not yet received a copy of the M/V San Nicholas passenger manifest.


Lemuel Pabula, general manager of the San Nicholas shipping line, said the boat was carrying 198 passengers and crew at the time of the accident, well within its maximum capacity load.


The passengers were reportedly a mix of tourists and residents of the island of Coron off Palawan, which is famous for its dive sites.


It could not be immediately determined what caused the accident, but reports show that the boat hit the Superferry’s port (left) side.


Pabula said they alerted the PCG of the accident after some of the passengers’ relatives received cellular phone calls about the mishap and relayed the information to the shipping office.


He said he could also not explain how the accident happened, though Lista said visibility in the area of the mishap was reduced to five miles by monsoon rains.


"We were in the right of way en route to Cebu when they hit us on the port side," WG&A spokeswoman Gina Virtusio said.


Virtusio also said all the 1,506 passengers and 184 crew members of the SuperFerry 12 were safe and that 24 of the survivors from the M/V San Nicholas were brought aboard.


She said the SuperFerry 12 was cruising out of Manila Bay when it was struck by the smaller M/V San Nicholas.


In a radio interview over station dzMM, Pabula said the boat is 20 years old and identified its captain as Celso Ibañez.


Lista said he is ordering an investigation of the accident to determine which party will be held responsible for the mishap.


"As of now, we are conducting several rescue operations. Several helicopters and patrol boats have been dispatched to look for other survivors," Lista said


Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, who also heads the National Disaster Coordinating Council, said President Arroyo has been informed of the accident. According to Reyes, the President ordered that "maximum assistance be given the passengers and for the search to continue.


The worst’s worst maritime accident in history happened in the Philippines when the passenger vessel M/V Doña Paz collided with foreign tanker M/T Vector off the coast of Mindoro on Dec. 20, 1987 that left 4,340 people dead.


Small boats and ferries, notorious for overloading and lacking safety features, are the chief means of inter-island travel in the Philippine archipelago and boat accidents are common. — With reports from Christina Mendez, AFP

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