MANILA -- An inter-island ferry with 258 passengers and crew, including Christmas holiday travelers, sank Thursday after being battered by fierce winds and big waves off the country's northeast, leaving at least four people dead and 88 others missing, officials said.
More than 160 others were plucked alive from the rough sea by navy and coast guard personnel and a flotilla of fishing boats after the M/V Mercraft 3 sank in the Polillo Strait between Quezon province's Infanta town and the ferry's destination, Polillo island, coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said.
A survivor, Donel Jade Mendiola, told DZMM radio that bad weather briefly delayed the ferry's departure, but the weather improved and the vessel then left from Quezon's Real town. Strong winds and large waves started to lash it about two hours into the trip, he said.
"The vessel came to a halt and started taking in water in the front side. The passengers dashed to one side and the ferry started to sink," Mendiola said. He said the passengers were instructed to don life vests.
Coast guard boats, navy vessels and fishing boats rescued 166 people, including many who were floating in the rough sea, Balilo said, adding that the ferry could carry 286 people and apparently wasn't overcrowded.
Rescue efforts will continue despite rough waves and nightfall, Balilo said, adding that a coast guard helicopter tried to fly to the area but was hampered by the strong winds.
Many of those rescued were taken to Dinahican village in Infanta, where Quezon officials were transporting clothes, food, water and medicine, Juanito Diaz, who heads Quezon's disaster response agency, said by telephone.
Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for past accidents at sea in the Philippines, including on Dec. 20, 1987, when the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster. (AP)