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September 7, 2009

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At least 9 die, scores missing as ferry sinks

A FERRY carrying nearly 1,000 passengers sank in the southern Philippines yesterday, leaving at least nine dead and more than 30 missing.

The Superferry 9 began to list before dawn about 15 kilometers off Zamboanga del Norte Province, rousing terrified passengers from their sleep and sending many jumping into the water, said Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo, the Coast Guard chief.

Rescuers transferred 900 of 968 passengers and crewmen to two nearby commercial ships, a navy gunboat and a fishing boat, he said.

A search was underway for 33 people who remained missing, Tamayo said.

"We really hope they're just unaccounted for due to the confusion," Tamayo told The Associated Press.

A Canadian tourist, Jeffrey Predchuz, was among the survivors, officials said.

Ships from the navy were deployed and three military aircraft scoured the seas, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro told reporters.

American troops providing counterterrorism training to Philippine soldiers in the region deployed a civilian helicopter and five boats, some carrying paramedics, to help, said Colonel William Coultrup of the United States.

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 Coast Guard said, adding that three passengers were injured.

The cause of the listing was not clear.

The skipper initially ordered everyone aboard to abandon the ship as a precautionary step, said Jess Supan, vice president of Aboitiz Transport System, which owns the steel-hulled ferry.

There were reports that the ferry listed to the right due to a hole in the hull, the National Disaster Coordinating Council said.

As the 7,268-ton ferry tilted, some passengers may have panicked and jumped into the water.

Passenger Roger Cinciron told DZMM Radio that he felt the ferry was tilting about midnight but he was assured by a crewman that everything was normal.

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 as he waited for rescuers to save him and more than 20 others.

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, but he could not immediately jump himself.

"I held on to the ferry for hours until daybreak. I couldn't jump into the water in the dark," he said.

Aerial photos from the navy showed survivors holding on to anything as the ferry tilted. Others climbed down a ladder on the side of the ferry 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 late yesterday but ran into problems midway, according to Tamayo.

There were no signs of possible terrorism, he said.

Al-Qaida-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 kilometers south of Manila, although a tropical storm was battering the country's mountainous north, according to the Coast Guard.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of tropical storms, badly kept boats and weak enforcement of safety laws.

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 maritime disaster.


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