Divers to search sunken ship Monday

(UPDATED) An oil slick adds a new dimension to the disaster, which now counts 38 people dead; Some Cebu LGUs report seeing oil near their coasts

CEBU CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – Search and retrieval operations for the victims trapped inside the sunken M/V Thomas Aquinas will start Monday, August 19, as the death toll from Friday’s (August 16) collision with M/V Sulpicio Express 7 in Cebu rose to 38 on Sunday, August 18.

The search and rescue operation command center reported Sunday that an additional 3 bodies were retrieved by divers from the ill-fated passenger vessel. Only 25 so far have been identified.

Retrieval operations for the bodies trapped inside the sunken ferry will commence Monday, the Philippine News Agency (PNA) reported, quoting Naval Forces Central operations officer Lt Cmdr Noel Escalona.

Escalona said some of the divers have seen bodies trapped inside the sunken ferry, the PNA reported.

However, the divers had difficulties retrieving the victims.

Divers from the Philippine Navy’s Naval Special Operations Group are working in cooperation with 2 divers from the Region 7 police office and 2 South Korean divers.

The diving operations in the wreck is “dangerous,” Escalona added.

Fading hopes

“It is possible that there are air pockets in its compartments and there might be survivors,” Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic told Agence France-Presse, adding people could survive for 72 hours in such conditions.

“There is still hope that there might just be survivors there.”

However by nightfall the navy and coastguard divers had not been able to reach the interior of the vessel, with strong currents and choppy waves hampering efforts, and only dead bodies from its outer areas had been recovered.

“We are still hopeful, although you have to accept the reality that their chances of survival are very slim,” Neil Sanchez, head of the regional disaster management office in Cebu, told reporters.

The number of people officially listed as missing was sharply reduced on Sunday to 82 from 170, but this was due to tallying issues rather than any fresh rescues.

The number of missing was cut after those involved in the search reconciled their figures, said Sanchez.

However authorities were unable to say how many people may be in the sunken ship, which is at a depth of about 30 metres (98 feet), giving some hope the number of missing could be reduced further.

Oil slick

ANOTHER DISASTER. Residents walk through a mangrove area affected by an oil slick near the site of a ferry and freighter collision in Cordoba, Cebu, on August 18, 2013. Photo by AFP/Ted Aljibe

Meanwhile leaking oil from the vessel added a new front to the disaster response, spreading for more than 5 km (3 mi) and into coastal villages, fishing grounds and mangroves.

The local government units of Lapu-Lapu City and Cordova town in Cebu raised concerns over reports that the oil sheen from the sunken ferry has reached their shorelines.

One resort in Brgy Suba-basbas, Lapu-Lapu City, reported seeing bunker fuel near the shore. The oil slick has also reached several costal barangays in Cordova.

“You can see it coming out of the sunken vessel. It is bunker fuel and it is black,” Cebu coastguard commander Weniel Azcuna told Agence France-Presse.

Some protected mangrove areas in Cordova are also affected by the leaked oil. Residents fear that their mangroves might die if the local government will not take immediate action.

At one area about 5 km from the disaster site, mangroves were coated in black oil at low tide, and birds waded amid shallow water covered in a rainbow sheen, according to an AFP reporter.

The Aquinas was loaded with 120,000 litters of bunker oil; 20,000 litters of diesel; and 20,000 litters of lube oil.

Calls for help

Fisherman Dennis Reyes of Tanke, Talisay City, Cebu, was one of the first responders of Friday’s sea collision.

Reyes said he saw 3 red flairs shoot up in the sky at around 8:30pm. As a member of the Bantay Dagat group, he immediately alerted fellow fishermen.

“When I saw the flairs, I know something was wrong,” said Reyes. 

He ran home and asked his son and two others to help him sail to the area.

When they arrived, Reyes said the passenger vessel was already under water. Hundreds of floating passengers were shouting for help, he told Rappler.

“People were everywhere. They we’re shouting for help but we could only rescue a few,” he said in Cebuano.

Most of the passengers of the passenger ferry managed to climb aboard a couple of life rafts from the ship.

Reyes and his team managed to rescue 13 passengers, in spite of his small boat. The victims were brought ashore in Cansojong, Talisay City.

They rescued an additional 11 passengers who were later handed over to the Philippine Navy Rescue team.

Anxious, long wait

DESPERATE SEARCH. A relative of one of the missing passengers writes down contact numbers on pictures of missing kin displayed at the office of the ferry involved in a collision, in Cebu City, August 18, 2013. Photo by AFP/Ted Aljibe

Survivors and people with relatives still missing waited anxiously at the Cebu ferry passenger terminal and a local hospital for news of loved ones.

“I cannot explain what I am feeling. It is painful, but I continue to hope,” said Nanette Condicion, 44, who survived by jumping on to the cargo ship but lost her elder sister and 71-year-old father in the chaos.

“I am staying here to wait for them, dead or alive. I am not going to leave unless I see both of them.”

The M/V Sulpicio Express 7 also managed to rescue some passengers.

The ships collided as they were travelling in opposite directions at a well-known choke point near the mouth of Cebu’s port.

The steel bow of the cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.

Officials said they suspected human error was to blame for one of the ships going into a wrong lane, although investigations had only just begun. – With reports from the Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com