For five hours, Jessie Buot swam through mountainous seas and torrential rain, until he reached dry land. He was the one of the fortunate ones. Most of the 862 passengers and crew aboard a ferry that capsized in a typhoon in the central Philippines are believed to have perished.
Philippine Navy divers rapped on the hull of the stricken ship, the MV Princess of Stars, yesterday but received no response. Meanwhile, bodies, including those of a man and a woman who had tied themselves together, washed ashore on nearby islands, along with life jackets and children's shoes.
Mr Buot is one of only 38 people known to have survived when the ferry sank near Sibuyan Island, after running into the path of typhoon Fengshen. "I tried to be brave, because I knew if I had succumbed to my fears, I would have died," he said.
Mr Buot, 24, who works on a mango farm, jumped off the ship when it began to capsize. "I held on to my life vest very tight so I wouldn't lose it, and I did not try to swim with others because I was afraid they might cling to me and we might all drown," he said.
One group of 28 passengers and crew washed ashore after drifting at sea for more than 24 hours, wearing life jackets. The coastguard was yesterday checking a report that another group of people – some dead, some alive – had been spotted in the water.
But for most of the distraught relatives waiting at a passenger terminal in the central city of Cebu, where the Princess of Stars was supposed to dock, the outlook appeared bleak. They included Laarni Condrilla, whose mother, father and two brothers were all on board the ship. Ms Condrilla, 26, was called by her mother as the ferry started to sink. She asked her daughter to pray for her. Then the line went dead.
If the death toll is as high as feared, it will be the worst maritime disaster in the Philippines for more than 20 years. But for many local people, the events are depressingly familiar. The country has a history of tragedies involving ferries, the main form of transport for impoverished Filipinos travelling between the archipelago's 7,100 islands.
The country is struck by about 20 typhoons a year, and grief-stricken relatives were yesterday asking why the Princess of Stars was allowed to set sail from Manila on a 20-hour voyage, with Fengshen already forecast. It seems, though, that the 24,000-tonne vessel was expected to skirt the storm and was deemed large enough to stay afloat in its periphery. Then the typhoon changed course.
The shipping company, Sulpicio Lines, has been involved in four disasters at sea, including a collision between a ferry and an oil tanker in 1987 which killed more than 4,000 people.
The rescue operation was being hampered by continuing poor weather, with pounding seas stalling efforts by Navy divers to drill into the ship's hull. The head of the coastguard, Vice-Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo, said: "We're not ruling out that somebody there is alive."
Reynato Lanoria, a janitor on the ship, was on the top deck when a crew member ordered passengers to put on life jackets. Half an hour later, the ferry began tilting so fast that children and elderly people fell over on the rain-slicked deck.
Gretchen Labadia received a text message from her husband as the ship began to sink. "Don't worry, I'm safe," he wrote. "I'll text you tomorrow.''Reuse content