CEBU (Updated) -- Three people died while 120 others were rescued from a ferry that sank after a steering problem off San Ricardo, Southern Leyte late last Saturday afternoon.
The skipper of the M/V Maharlika II ordered the passengers and crew to abandon the ferry after it began to list in choppy water and strong winds off Southern Leyte.
Survivors said they were tossed about by the churning sea in darkness for six hours, while praying and clinging to an overturned life raft before a passing ship rescued them.
“A few more hours in those huge, huge waves and we could have all died,” said ferry passenger Romeo Cabag, a 32-year-old security guard who survived with his wife, Wilma.
“I had cramps in both legs, was exhausted, and at one point I was beginning to pray that if I won’t make it, that God allow at least my wife to live.”
Capt. Juan Cayago, the skipper, said they were carrying 85 passengers, 31 crew members and 13 rolling stocks when the mishap occurred, the Coast Guard and Office of Civil Defense reported. At least three persons were still missing as of Sunday. (The authorities have yet to reconcile the conflicting figures.)
The ferry, which belonged to Archipelago Ferries Corp., encountered steering trouble off Southern Leyte province and was then battered by huge waves and fierce winds, said Capt. Joseph Coyme of the Coast Guard.
A passing cargo ship with a spotlight saw Cabag’s group in the darkness but sailed away after failing to maneuver close toward survivors because of the big waves. When a tanker with a search light passed close by, Cabag and his companions used their remaining strength to raise their life jackets with reflectors.
6 hours in water
By then, they had been clinging to an overturned life raft for six hours.
“The tanker’s moving spotlight hit the reflectors and they noticed us,” Cabag told The Associated Press by cell phone.
“Death was in our minds for several hours in the water until a crew member from the second ship used a megaphone with a message that drove some of my fellow survivors to tears: ‘Hold on, hold on, don’t let go, all of you will be saved.’”
An elderly man and a woman in their group, however, perished, their bodies still attached to their life ring and jacket, Cabag said.
The Coast Guard had cleared the Maharlika to leave Surigao around noon Saturday for a regular domestic run. The skipper sent the distress call a few hours later and several passengers used their cell phones to call for help when the ferry’s steering mechanism malfunctioned, and fierce winds and big waves began to batter the vessel.
It was heading for Liloan in Southern Leyte.
Rescuers, including the crew on two passing foreign vessels, plucked at least 110 survivors, including the Cabag couple, from the shifting waters. They recovered at least three bodies, Red Cross aid worker Edward Barbero said.
Search and rescue efforts by air and sea continued yesterday because it was uncertain how many passengers and crew members were aboard the Maharlika, Coyme said.
“There are discrepancies in the numbers and we cannot terminate the search and rescue until we’re sure that everybody has been accounted for,” Coyme said by cell phone from Surigao, where the survivors were taken.
As of 7 last night, records from the Incident Command System (ICS) showed there were 120 survivors, three of whom were injured. Three were confirmed dead, while three others were reported missing.
(Authorities have yet to reconcile the figures. Coast Guard authorities said that the vessel manifest listed 98 passengers and 26 crew members or a total of 124.)
The Naval Forces Central (Navforcen) spokesperson, Lt. James Reyes, confirmed that the ship captain was one of those rescued.
Lt. Commander Eliezer Dalnay, spokesman of the PCG Northern Mindanao Command, said records from the Surigao Coast Guard Station showed that the Maharlika left Surigao City at 12 noon last Saturday for Liloan, Southern Leyte. At 3 p.m., the master of the vessel ordered all passengers and crew to abandon ship.
The vessel sank around 5 p.m.
Authorities had to suspend the sea and air search at one point yesterday, because the water was rough, Reyes said.
Dalnay, however, assured that the Coast Guard, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office of Surigao del Norte and Surigao City’s officials are working together to help all the survivors and sustain the search.
Two of the survivors were rescued by the M/V Filipinas Maasin of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc., which passed the site of the accident.
Chester Cokaliong, president and CEO of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc., the survivors were found past 7 a.m. yesterday, already very weak 14 hours in the water.
In a text message, Cokaliong identified the rescued passengers as Rommel Dabu Tianson, 30, of Concepcion, Tarlac and Arvin Maagad Mosqueda, 36, of Carmen, Cagayan de Oro.
“Luya na kaayo sila when they were rescued. Di na makasulti (They were very weak and could hardly talk),” Cokaliong said.
They were picked up upon arrival in Surigao by a team from the mayor’s office.
Cokaliong said that last Saturday night, another of his vessels, the M/V Filipinas Dumaguete, left Cebu and was supposed to sail on the same path as that of the Maharlika. But the M/V Filipinas had to return to Lipata 30 minutes later, because of the large waves and strong winds.
Stormy weather and rough to very rough seas are expected today in the Ilocos Region, Cordillera Administrative Region and the provinces of Nueva Ecija and Aurora, as typhoon Luis hovers over these areas.
At 4 p.m. yesterday, typhoon Luis was spotted at 364 kilometers northeast of Virac, Catanduanes. It had maximum sustained winds of 110 kilometers per hour (kph) and gusts of up to 140 kph.
Luis was forecast to move west northwest at 20 kph.
Rains and gusts are expected in the provinces of Tarlac, Zambales, Bulacan, Pampanga, Northern Quezon and Polilio Islands.
The state weather bureau Pagasa forecast partly cloudy to cloudy skies with rains and thunderstorms in Metro Cebu today. Residents can also expect moderate to rough coastal waters.
The ferry accident should serve as a warning to others, especially fishers, to stay on shore during rough weather, said Executive Director Simeon Romarate of the Cebu City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
The council said it has received no reports about major events in the city since Luis began to affect the country. All they’ve had to attend to so far was a request to cut two trees in Sitio La Guerta in Barangay Lahug yesterday.
“We immediately cut and cleared the area to prevent any untoward incident since we are still experiencing strong winds,” Romarate said.
Stay cautious, Romarate advised, especially if you live in upland or coastal areas.
“Di lang sad ta mo-kompyansa (Don’t let your guard down),” he said. (RVC/EOB/RSB/With reports from Sunnex, PNA and AP