Philippines probes ferry disaster, hundreds feared dead

June 25th, 2008 - 8:51 pm ICT by IANS  

Manila, June 25 (DPA) A Philippine maritime board Wednesday opened an investigation into the country’s one of the worst ferry disasters, in which more than 800 people are believed to have been killed. At least 70 people were confirmed killed in the Saturday sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, 300 km south of Manila. More than 740 people are still missing and feared dead, while 48 have survived the accident - the worst in the past two decades.

With rescuers finding only bodies for the past two days, authorities said the prospects of recovering more survivors were bleak.

“As the days go on, the chances of getting live passengers and crew are getting slimmer,” Lieutenant Commander Rogelio Villanueva of the Philippines Coast Guard said.

In the first hearing of its investigation Wednesday, the Board of Marine Inquiry grilled officials of Sulpicio Lines, which owns the sunken ferry, about the company’s safety policies and emergency equipment in its vessels.

“We want to know if the vessel complied with regulations,” the board’s chairman, Rear Admiral Ramon Liwanag, said.

The Princess of the Stars sailed for a 22-hour journey last Friday from Manila to the central province of Cebu as Typhoon Fengshen battered the Philippines. The vessel headed straight into the path of Fengshen, which left at least 361 people dead.

It was carrying 862 people aboard, including 81 children.

Coast guard and maritime authorities told the inquiry that the ferry’s captain should have taken shelter at the nearest port when he realized the dangers of the trip.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was in the US for a working visit, vowed that those responsible for the tragedy would be held accountable.

“We are holding the ferry company accountable to ensure that we find how this ferry tragedy could have occurred so we can take steps to make sure it never happens again,” she said.

In a bid to help ensure an impartial investigation, the coast guard Wednesday relieved the chief of its Manila port station, Commander Erwin Balagas, who was responsible for allowing the ferry to sail of his duties.

More than 100 Philippine and US divers continued Wednesday the grim search for bodies trapped in the sunken ferry or floating in nearby waters.

Most of the bodies of the confirmed fatalities had washed ashore on nearby islands, where communities have buried the decomposing remains in mass graves. Some bodies were found floating in waters around Sibuyan Island and inside the ferry’s hull.

Around 60 more bodies were spotted Wednesday floating in open sea by a US reconnaissance aircraft and Philippine Navy ships, Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo said.

Arevalo said a Philippine Navy ship also retrieved three bodies from 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.”

Meanwhile, the government has grounded all vessels of Sulpicio Lines, which has been involved in some of the country’s worst maritime disasters.

The Princess of the Stars was the fourth ship of Sulpicio Lines to sink since 1987, when 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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