A ferry carrying nearly 1,000 passengers sank in the southern Philippines early yesterday, leaving at least nine people dead and more than 30 missing.
The Superferry 9 began to list before dawn about 15 kilometres off Zamboanga del Norte province, rousing terrified passengers from their sleep and sending many jumping into the water, coastguard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said.
Rescuers transferred 900 of the 968 passengers and crewmen to two nearby commercial ships, a navy gunboat and a fishing boat. A search was under way for 33 people who remained missing.
“We really hope they're just unaccounted for due to the confusion,” Mr Tamayo said.
Passenger Roger Cinciron told a radio station he felt the ferry tilting at about midnight but was assured by a crewman that everything was well. About two hours later, he was roused from sleep by the sound of crashing cargo below his cabin.
“People began to panic because the ship was really tilting,” he said. Reymark Belgira, another passenger, said many panicked as the huge ferry turned. He said he saw parents tossing children to people on life rafts below.
Navy ships were deployed and three military aircraft scoured the seas, Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said. American troops providing counter-terrorism training to Philippine soldiers in the region deployed a civilian helicopter and five boats, some carrying paramedics.
Mr Teodoro said two men and a child drowned during the scramble to escape the ship. The bodies of two other passengers were later plucked from the sea by fishermen.
The cause of the listing was still not clear. The ferry skipper initially ordered everyone to abandon ship as a precautionary step, said Jess Supan, vice president of Aboitiz Transport System, which owns the ferry.
There were reports that the 7,268-ton vessel listed to the right because of a hole in the hull.
Aerial photos showed survivors holding on to anything as the ferry tilted. Others climbed down a ladder on the side as a lone orange life raft waited below.
The ferry left the southern port city of General Santos on Saturday and was scheduled to arrive in Iloilo city in the central Philippines later yesterday but ran into problems midway, Mr Tamayo said.
There were no signs of possible terrorism, he added.
Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants bombed another Superferry in Manila Bay in 2004, setting off an inferno that killed 116 people in Southeast Asia's second-worst terrorist attack.
The weather was generally fair in the Zamboanga peninsula region, about 860 kilometres south of Manila, although a tropical storm was battering the country's mountainous northern region.
Sea accidents are common in the region because of tropical storms, badly maintained boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations.
Last year, a ferry overturned after sailing toward a powerful typhoon in the central Philippines, killing more than 800 people on board.
In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster.