By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: June 26, 2008
MANILA: The death toll from Typhoon Fengshen, the storm that battered the Philippines last week, could go as high as 1,300 if the missing passengers and crew of a capsized ferry are included, officials said Thursday.
Rescue divers continued to search the overturned ferry Thursday but failed to retrieve any new survivors, raising the possibility that as many as 809 of the 865 passengers and crew had perished in the disaster.
Since the ship capsized Saturday near Sibuyan Island, only 56 survivors have been found. The Philippine Coast Guard said 124 bodies had either washed ashore on nearby islands or had been found floating in the sea.
Adding to the uncertainty of the situation was the way in which some of the recovered bodies were being handled. On some of the islands where bodies had washed up, television footage showed corpses being dumped from a truck into mass graves. Many of the bodies had not been examined by forensic experts for possible identification.
Officials on Thursday raised the overall death toll from the storm to 498, excluding those still missing.
Divers have had difficulty pulling corpses from inside the ship because of narrow passageways that are blocked by debris. Retrieval efforts, officials said, could last a month.
As hopes dimmed of finding more survivors, friends and relatives were becoming more desperate. At the offices of Sulpicio Lines, the company that owns the ferry, relatives have been pressing officials for answers.
During a Catholic Mass held on a tugboat near the wreckage of the ferry, emotions ran high, with relatives weeping and throwing flowers into the sea. Mark Anthony Barrozo, whose pregnant girlfriend was among those believed dead, exclaimed “forgive me” and then broke down, according to Reuters.
The National Disaster Coordinating Council said the typhoon affected more than 2.4 million Filipinos in 42 of the country’s 81 provinces. It estimated damage to property at more than 5.5 billion pesos, or about $125 million.
The coast guard’s Board of Marine Inquiry has initiated an investigation into the ferry disaster.
At a hearing Wednesday, lawyers for Sulpicio Lines stopped short of blaming the coast guard for the tragedy. Coast guard officials, on the other hand, insisted it had been the company’s fault.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Wednesday that Sulpicio Lines should be held accountable for the tragedy. The hearings are scheduled to resume Friday.