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‘No sign of Life’
« on: June 24, 2008, 11:38:52 AM »
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
It lay in the water with its belly up, and when a Navy team approached the capsized ferry Princess of the Stars and pounded on its hull to check for signs of life, there was nothing but silence.

“We just approached the hull of the ship, we got near and then banged, knocked in order for us to give a sign if ever there are still people inside,” Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo said. “Unfortunately there was no response.”

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A child (inset) clutches a picture of her sibling, one of some 800 people missing after the ferry Princess of the Stars sank off Romblon. The ferry, with a hole in its hull, is shown in this photo taken from a Coast Guard plane piloted by Lt.SG Reimondo Santos and Ensign Frederick Gacasa. Photo by BERNARDO BATUIGAS

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       Capsized ferry Princess of the Stars

Capt. Leah Santiago, spokesman for the Southern Luzon Command, who was in Romblon, also cited reports from the Coast Guard of the slim chance of finding trapped survivors in the capsized vessel.

“It is assumed that hundreds could be inside the capsized boat. Rescuers were knocking on the steel hull to detect possible responses, but there was no sign of movement,” Santiago said.

Santiago also spoke of some survivors’ stories that only over a hundred were able to jump overboard before the ship keeled over.

The Princess of the Stars of Sulpicio Lines was carrying more than 800 passengers when it sank in rough seas off Romblon last Saturday at the height of typhoon “Frank.” Photographs showed only the tip of the ship’s bow visible above the waves.

As of press time yesterday, there were 100 fatalities and 40 survivors.

Rescue teams brought to the site by BRP Pampanga battled furious seas and high winds yesterday in a desperate hunt for more survivors.

“We have slowed down to scout for floating bodies,” the BRP Pampanga’s master Lieutenant-Commander Inocencio Rosario told reporters on board.

“After three days they tend to float,” he added.

“We have not lost hope that there might be more survivors,” said coast guard chief Vice Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo.

However, several bodies have also washed up ashore along with children’s shoes, heightening fears of a high death toll. A coast guard crew was among those slowly combing the waters for victims of the disaster.

A US vessel was en route to help with search efforts and was expected to reach the site in around 15 hours, Presidential Spokesman Jesus Dureza said. A P-3 maritime surveillance plane was also being dispatched to help in the search and recovery efforts.

In Masbate, nine male corpses believed to be passengers from the Princess of the Stars washed ashore.

“The bodies were bloated and decomposing. What we did was just to wrap them up and buried them right away,” a local mayor told radio.

The 24,000-ton Princess of the Stars had been allowed to sail despite typhoon Frank bearing down because, under current laws, the vessel was large enough to stay afloat in the periphery of the storm.

But Frank made a sudden change of direction from north to west, and headed directly into the ship’s path. 

The captain, Florenio Marino, reportedly tried to get the vessel to safe harbor, but it ran aground. There were conflicting reports that he had slowed the engines in the face of the storm and that the motors had given out.

The ship issued a distress signal on Saturday afternoon from near Sibuyan, about 150 kilometers south of Manila. One survivor said there was almost no time to react.

“It seemed like everything happened in 15 minutes,” Reynato Lanorio, one of the crew, told dzBB radio. “Next thing we knew, the ship had gone under.”

He estimated about 100 people could have escaped the vessel, but thought the others were trapped inside.

Hopes dim for more survivors

Rescuers considered boring a hole in the sunken vessel yesterday in a desperate attempt to find more survivors trapped in air pockets inside the capsized vessel.

Hopes dwindled by the hour that large groups of survivors might be found in areas where communications were cut off by Frank that left at least 163 people dead in flooded communities.

“They’re scouring the area. They’re studying the direction of the waves to determine where survivors may have drifted,” coast guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Armand Balilo said.

The coast guard said it was checking a survivor’s report that at least one group of people – some dead, some alive – had been spotted bobbing in the sea.

A number of coast guard and navy ships swarmed to the area but were largely kept at bay by big waves in the still roiling waters.

Rep. Eleandro Madrona, who flew over the ferry yesterday afternoon, reported seeing only a tugboat nearby because of the conditions.

“I was thinking, where could these 700 people be?” Madrona said. “There’s no operation there at this time, but the search and rescue is ongoing in nearby islands.”

Distraught relatives of the people on board the vessel complained to Sulpicio employees while waiting for news in Cebu, where the Princess of the Stars was meant to dock.

“You can’t bring our loved ones back. You should be held responsible,” one woman told employees of the company.

A floor of the passenger terminal was converted into a mini chapel with a makeshift altar. Nuns and priests comforted those waiting.

During an emotional Catholic mass, one man pounded the wall in grief over his missing son.

Edward Go, one of Sulpicio’s owners, said the company was relying on the coast guard for information.

“We fully understand the feelings of the people and we are prepared to help them in any way we can, but, as of now there is really no information available,” he told Reuters.

“Definitely, Sulpicio Lines is responsible here,” said Transport Undersecretary Elena Bautista.

The government also set up a taskforce to investigate the cause of the accident, while anti-corruption campaigners said they would launch a class action against the company, claiming it should lose its operating license.

Sen. Richard Gordon, who is also the chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, said a survivor described mountainous waves and chaos as the ship went down on Saturday afternoon.

“According to him it was so dark, it was high noon but it was so dark, and there was too much rain and the waves were just too much for the ship,” Gordon said.

It was the company’s fourth disaster at sea in the past two decades, and the transportation department slapped an immediate ban on further sailings.

An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year and has a long history of shipping tragedies. 

Bodies on the shore

Survivors and dead bodies turned up on the shores of Romblon, Burias in Masbate and Mulanay in Quezon.

In Mulanay, 28 survivors turned up on Sunday morning. Quezon Province Police director Senior Superintendent Fidel Posadas said the survivors were originally 30 but two drowned when they reportedly removed their life jackets when they were near shore.

“They were located in Barangay Mulanay on Sunday morning but since the barangay is four hours away from Lucena City, we just learned about it the following day,” Posadas added.

But Santiago of SOLCOM said at least 38 survivors were rescued as of press time: 28 found in Mulanay, five in Burias, four in San Fernando in Romblon, and in Agtiwal.

Santiago said the recovery team found five dead – one in Mulanay and four in San Fernando.

She added SOLCOM chief Maj. Gen. Delfin Bangit ordered a non-stop search and recovery mission “despite the unpredictable weather just to possibly save lives.” –  With Roel Pareño, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Ed Amoroso, Celso Amo, Rudy Fernandez, Evelyn Macairan, Cet Dematera, AP









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