Survivors of ferry disaster tell of night of terror

Coastguard officers assist survivors from the stricken ferry as they arrive at Surigao City in the Philippines. Picture: AFP/Getty
Coastguard officers assist survivors from the stricken ferry as they arrive at Surigao City in the Philippines. Picture: AFP/Getty
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SURVIVORS from a ferry that sank after encountering steering problems in the central Philippines said yesterday that 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.”

Rescuers, including the crew on two passing foreign vessels, plucked at least 110 survivors, including the Cabag couple, from the dangerously shifting waters. They recovered at least three bodies from the M/V Maharlika II, which listed and sank at nightfall on Saturday, 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, coastguard captain Joseph 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,” Capt Coyme said, speaking from the central city of Surigao, where the survivors were taken.

As he spoke, an air force helicopter flew low overhead on a search mission. Coastguard personnel could be heard using two-way radio to ask civilian ships leaving Surigao’s port to “help look for survivors [and] life-vests” near the scene of the accident and along the coast.

Ambulances waited in Surigao and nearby towns to assist any more survivors.

The ferry encountered steering trouble off Southern Leyte province and was then battered by huge waves and fierce winds whipped up by a typhoon north of its path, Capt Coyme said.

With clear weather in the central provinces south of the typhoon, the coastguard cleared the Maharlika to leave Surigao city around noon Saturday for a regular domestic run. The skipper sent the distress call a few hours later and several passengers used their mobile phones to call for help when the ferry’s steering mechanism failed and fierce wind and big waves began to batter the stalled vessel, Capt Coyme and other coastguard officials said.

As the ferry listed alarmingly, Mr Cabag said he, his wife and other passengers were handed life-jackets. Amid the frenzy and cries for help, they uttered a prayer and jumped into the rough waters in panic. They struggled to swim into an overturned life raft that was not adequately inflated and held to the ropes on its sides for six hours.

A passing cargo ship with a spotlight saw them in the darkness but sailed away after failing to manoeuvre close toward Mr Cabag’s group of survivors because of the big waves. When a second ship with a searchlight passed close by, Mr Cabag and his companions used their remaining strength to raise their life jackets with reflectors.

“The tanker’s moving spotlight hit the reflectors and they noticed us,” Mr Cabag said. “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, Mr Cabag said, adding that it underscored the severity of the ordeal they suffered.

Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for past accidents at sea in the Philippines, including in 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.