MANILA • A ferry carrying 189 passengers and crew capsized in central Philippines yesterday, killing at least 38 people in the country's latest maritime tragedy.
The 33-tonne, wooden-hulled Kim Nirvana tipped over in unexplained circumstances about half an hour after setting sail from the port of Ormoc in Leyte province at midday. It was en route to Camotes Islands, about an hour away.
Coastguard spokesman Armand Balilo said 127 people survived but there were conflicting reports on how many were missing.
Rescuers pulled survivors from the sea and continued to scour the waters where the accident happened, about 200m from the shore.
"Some clung on to the hull of the overturned vessel, while some were rescued while swimming towards the shore," said Mr Ciriaco Tolibao, an official from the city's disaster risk reduction and management office.
The vessel was carrying 173 passengers and 16 crew members, and was licensed to carry up to 200 people, he added.
Just a small section of the boat's underbelly, surrounded by rescue boats, was visible above the water by late afternoon yesterday.
At least 53 survivors were brought to the hospital while more than two dozen others walked home. At the port, a row of survivors sat, awaiting attention, while medical workers placed the injured onto stretchers.
Many of the passengers were traders who were transporting farm produce and other merchandise.
Mr Reynante Manza, 45, recounted how the vessel suddenly rolled to one side as it reversed course shortly after backing out of the port, pulling down his wife and many others underwater.
"It rolled while attempting to turn around swiftly. I am alive because I jumped overboard as soon as it happened," he told reporters.
Another survivor, Ms May Sopa, told CNN Philippines that when she hit the water, other panicking passengers pushed her down before a man clinging on to a water container rescued her.
"I told him 'Please save me,'" Ms Sopa said, adding that they bobbed about on the water and tried to paddle ashore.
The authorities were puzzled how the accident happened in relatively calm waters, after initial reports of choppy seas, and dismissed speculation that it was overloaded.
"There was an occasional swell but the sea condition was manageable... There wasn't any storm or any gale. We're trying to find out (why it happened)," Mr Balilo told reporters. He said the boat's outriggers broke in the accident, and added that it was possible that the crew committed a navigational error.
The authorities took the captain and some crew members into custody. Mr Balilo said a formal investigation would be conducted as soon as search and rescue operations were concluded.
Poorly maintained, loosely regulated ferries are the backbone of maritime travel in the Philippines.
This has led to frequent accidents, including the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster in 1987 when the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker, leaving more than 4,300 people dead.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE