Manila charges crew, owners of sunk ferry with murder: Official

Residents watching the ill-fated passenger ferry Kim Nirvana being lifted by a crane. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine police have filed murder charges against the owners and crew of a passenger ferry that capsized and left dozens dead, an official said on Saturday.

The charges were filed late on Friday in the central city of Ormoc over the sinking of the Kim Nirvana vessel, according to regional police head Chief Superintendent Asher Dolina.

In a separate report, overloading of cargo and passengers might have been to blame for the disaster and a government investigation is now underway.

Survivors reported seeing up to 150 sacks of cement in the ship's cargo area before it capsized in relatively calm seas off the central port of Ormoc on Thursday, city councillor Godiardo Ebcas told AFP.

Bloated bodies spilled out of the Kim Nirvana's wooden hull as a crane lifted it from the water and placed it on Ormoc port, he said.

Ebcas said the death toll stood at 56 with 142 survivors. The death count was bigger than the 45 reported by the coast guard, which was based on the ship's passenger list, though the guard counted the same number of survivors.

The coast guard earlier said the 33-tonne ship could carry 194 people, including 178 passengers and 16 crew, but according to the casualty count of the city council, the ship was carrying at least 198.

"The ship might not be too overloaded in terms of passengers, but imagine the weight of its cargo," Ebcas said.

Each sack of rice, cement and fertiliser weighs 50kg, and 150 sacks would easily add 7,500 to the ship's load, excluding passengers, he said.

Ebcas said survivors saw that the cargo, located on the ship's lowest level, was not fastened to the floor with ropes as it should have been.

"This could have cause the weight of the ship to shift," said Ebcas.

Passengers on the ferry's regular route from Ormoc to the Camotes islands regularly bring supplies from the city to their remote fishing villages.

Search operations with rescue divers were stopped on Friday before the ship was lifted to port's berthing area.

Ebcas confirmed reports that some bodies were washed to the shore of a neighbouring municipality.

The coast guard is investigating the latest in a string of deadly sea mishaps. Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said the ship's crew would be summoned.

"If there was negligence, it should be pursued by investigators. Appropriate charges will be filed when necessary," presidential spokesman Abigail Valte told reporters on Saturday.

Poorly maintained, loosely regulated ferries form the backbone of maritime travel in the Philippines, a sprawling archipelago of 100 million people.

Many sea disasters occur during the typhoon season, which starts in June.

Frequent accidents in recent decades have claimed thousands of lives, 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 dead.

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