Grim scene greets rescue divers in Philippines

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: June 24, 2008

MANILA: What Rodel Laborte could not forget was the screaming of his fellow passengers. As the strong waves and wind tossed around the 24,000-ton ferry – “like a paper boat,” he said – pandemonium broke out. The shrieks got so loud, he said, he could not determine if the captain gave an order to abandon the ship.

“My heart was racing fast,” Laborte said. “All I could think about was whether there were enough lifeboats for all of us.”

When the ship tilted heavily to the left, Laborte decided to jump, along with several others, into the churning water, where they clung to a lifeboat. It took only minutes for much of the ferry to disappear, he said.

Laborte, 60, was one of the 62 survivors of the Princess of the Stars, which was struck by Typhoon Fengshen on Saturday, possibly killing most of the more than 800 passengers and crew on board. He and 27 others huddled in the lifeboat, which ended up Monday on the shore of Quezon Province, miles from the island of Sibuyan, near where the ferry capsized.

The ferry disaster could turn out to be one of the worst in the Philippines in the past two decades. On Tuesday, rescue teams from the Philippine Coast Guard managed to penetrate the overturned ship and found many decomposing corpses floating inside.

Coast guard divers managed to retrieve only one body from inside while another body was seen floating outside the ship, according to a Philippines Navy spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo.

Arevalo said it was too dark inside the ship to determine the number of victims.

“Most of the bodies were floating inside. They were trapped when the seven-story ship suddenly tilted and capsized,” he told DZBB radio.

Apart from sinking the ferry, the storm also submerged whole towns and communities, knocked down power lines and caused landslides. The Red Cross said that 177 people died elsewhere in the country, including 106 in Iloilo Province. Another 438, not including those from the ferry, were still missing.

The government was working intensively to mount recovery operations, which have been hampered by the rough seas and the sheer amount of damage the typhoon wrought in the central and northern Philippines.

According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council, 38 of the country’s 82 provinces were affected by the typhoon, which packed winds of up to 200 kilometers an hour, or 125 miles an hour.

“We learned from the news that a storm was coming, but we were confident when we left Manila that everything was O.K. because the weather at the time seemed perfect,” Laborte said in an interview Tuesday at the Red Cross offices in Manila, where he and 24 other survivors were brought early Tuesday for more medical attention and debriefing.

The ferry left Manila on Friday evening, bound for Cebu City, in the central Philippines, and by noon Saturday had run straight into the path of Fengshen, which had changed its path, according to the weather bureau.

Aside from the Princess of the Stars, more than a dozen other vessels, mostly fishing boats, capsized as the typhoon made landfall Saturday morning.

Bodies have been washing ashore in several different islands near Sibuyan and the authorities could not yet determine whether these bodies came from the ferry or from the other vessels.

“It’s a daunting operation,” Senator Richard Gordon, who is also the chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, said in an interview Tuesday. Hundreds of Red Cross volunteers across the country have been assisting in the rescue and recovery operations, complimenting the government’s effort.

Coast guard officials said they were not losing hope of finding survivors inside, especially because part of the ship was protruding from the water.

“Our mission is to search all the cabins, but it is dark inside,” one of the coast guard divers, Inocencio Rosario, told ABS-CBN television.

Rosario said he doubted any survivors were left inside the ship, but he added, “Miracles can happen.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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