The St Thomas Aquinas ferry was carrying 831 passengers and crew when the vessels smashed into each other late on Friday night in a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines’ second-biggest city, authorities said.
Coastguard and military vessels, as well as local fishermen in their own small boats, frantically worked through the night and Saturday morning to haul 629 people out of the water alive.
But when bad weather whipped up the ocean mid-afternoon on Saturday, authorities suspended the search with 171 people still unaccounted for.
“It rained hard… with strong winds and rough seas,” navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic told AFP.
He also said powerful currents had earlier prevented divers from assessing all of the sunken ferry to determine how many people had died and were trapped inside.
Fears the death toll will rise
Fabic said rescuers had not given up hope that there were other survivors who were still drifting at sea.
But Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the coastguard, said the death toll would almost certainly rise from the 31 bodies that had already been retrieved.
“Because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside,” he said, adding the ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision.
Pope Francis was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life”, a Vatican statement said, adding he would pray for all affected in the predominantly Catholic country.
One survivor, Lolita Gonzaga, 57, recalled the terror of falling from the top deck of the ship to the bottom level when the collision occurred, then the horror of escaping the black waters with her 62-year-old husband.
“When we were rescued we had to share the rubber boat with a dead woman. She was just lying there,” Gonzaga told AFP from a hospital bed in Cebu where she was nursing spinal injuries.
“We were transferred to the other ship that hit us, but I could not go up the stairs because it was full of dead people.
“They were left hanging there. We thought we were going to die. I just held hands with my husband and prayed to God to save us.”
Fisherman Mario Chavez told AFP he was one of the first people to reach passengers after the ferry sank in calm waters between two and three kilometres (around one to two miles) from shore.
“I plucked out 10 people from the sea last night. It was pitch black and I only had a small flashlight. They were bobbing in the water and screaming for help,” he said.
“They told me there were many people still aboard when the ferry sank… there were screams, but I could not get to all of them.”
‘Violated rules’ in a ‘well-known danger zone’
The cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, which had 36 crew members on board, did not sink. Television footage showed its steel bow had caved in on impact but it sailed safely to dock.
Tuason said it appeared one of the vessels had violated rules on which lanes they should use when travelling in and out of the port, without specifying which one.
The strait leading into the Cebu port is a well-known danger zone, said the enforcement office chief of the government’s Maritime Industry Authority, Arnie Santiago.
“It is a narrow passage, many ship have had minor accidents there in the past. But nothing this major,” Santiago told AFP.
“There is a blind spot there and each ship passing through needs to give way in a portion of that narrow strip.”
Industry authority head Maximo Mejia later told reporters that both vessels had previously passed safety inspections and were sea worthy, indicating human error was to blame.
The captain of the ferry survived, coastguard authorities said.
Ferries are one of the main forms of transport across the archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, particularly for the millions of people too poor to fly.
But sea accidents are common, with poor safety standards and lax enforcement typically to blame.
The world’s deadliest peacetime maritime disaster occurred near the capital Manila in 1987 when a ferry laden with Christmas holidaymakers collided with a small oil tanker, killing more than 4,300 people.
In 2008, a huge ferry capsized during a typhoon off the central island of Sibuyan, leaving almost 800 dead.