Coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo shows a file photo of passenger vessel Mercraft 3 as he talks to reporters in Manila, Philippines on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Philippine officials say coast guard officials and fishermen are trying to rescue more than 200 people on an inter-island ferry which is sinking off a northeastern province. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
LUCENA CITY—Rescuers were scrambling to save lives after a fast ferry carrying 251 passengers and crew capsized in stormy weather off Infanta town in northern Quezon province on Thursday morning.
The Philippine Coast Guard said four people—two men and two women—had been found dead and 240 had been plucked to safety.
Rescuers were searching for seven others, the Coast Guard said, although there were unconfirmed reports that some of the missing passengers had been rescued by fishermen and taken to shore.
Police reports said the fastcraft MV Mercraft 3, carrying 251 passengers and crew left the port of Real in northern Quezon for Polillo Island at 10:30 a.m.
The ferry had a capacity of 286 people. It was capable of making the crossing in two and a half hours.
The Coast Guard said huge waves slammed the ferry, causing it to tip over in waters off Dinahican village in Quezon.
“Initial report said the [ferry] sustained a big hole that caused it to capsize,” said Juanito Diaz, acting chief of the Quezon Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
He said rescuers from the Coast Guard and disaster response offices in Infanta and Real, assisted by fishermen in the area, plucked passengers out of the waters.
“The rescuers are still scouring the water in search of other possible passengers,” Diaz said.
Television images showed rescuers wheeling injured survivors into a hospital.
Four body bags were also seen being laid out on the floor.
The four who died had not been identified as of early Thursday night.
“The wind suddenly picked up and the boat was forced to stop when the bow started taking in water. Passengers ran to the side just before it tipped over,” student Donel Mendiola told dzMM radio.
“Some of us swam, but I saw old people who were apparently already dead,” Mendiola added.
Cmdr. Armand Balilo, spokesperson for the Coast Guard, said the ferry left Real as Tropical Storm “Vinta” (international name: Tembin) loomed over northern Mindanao, nearly a thousand kilometers to the south.
“We believe the weather was a big factor” in the accident, Balilo said.
The ferry, he said, was allowed to sail as there were no storm warnings at or around Real or Polillo.
Commodore Adeluis Bordado, commander of the Naval Forces Southern Luzon, said that while there was no rain, the waves in the area suddenly became huge.
Balilo said, however, that rescue efforts would continue despite rough waves and nightfall.
He said a Coast Guard helicopter tried to fly to the area but was hampered by the strong winds.
The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) said Vinta had entered the Philippine area of responsibility.
The storm was expected to make landfall in the Caraga-Davao regions between Thursday evening and Friday morning.
The government had advised people planning to return to their home provinces for Christmas to do so earlier than usual to avoid heavy weather forecast to hit ahead of the holidays.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands on the Pacific typhoon belt, is plagued by poor sea transport, with badly regulated boats and ships providing the backbone of a system prone to overcrowding and accidents.
The latest incident occurred 30 years after another ferry, the MV Doña Paz, collided with an oil tanker in a pre-Christmas accident that claimed more than 4,000 lives in the world’s worst peacetime disaster at sea. —WITH REPORTS FROM NIKKO DIZON, AFP AND AP