June 23, 2008

Scores Die As Typhoon Rolls Over Philippines At Least 137 Killed and Hundreds Missing

By Carlos Conde

A powerful typhoon battered the Philippines over the weekend, killing at least 137 people, according to the Red Cross. The death toll could increase sharply after a ferry carrying more than 700 passengers and crew members capsized off a province south of Manila.

Glenn Rabonza, executive director of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, said casualty figures were difficult to confirm because of the extremely bad weather, which was hampering search and recovery operations.

On Sunday, the coast guard said it had reached the spot near the Philippine island of Sibuyan where the passenger ferry MV Princess of the Stars capsized a day earlier.

Officials said they had found no survivors, apart from four passengers who were rescued earlier in the day. The bodies of four other passengers were also recovered, officials said.

Nanette Tansingco, mayor of San Fernando town, in Sibuyan Province, told DZMM radio Sunday that witnesses had described "the boat upside down with a big hole in the hull."

She said island residents had reported seeing slippers and other belongings washing ashore.

"Many of us jumped from the ship. The waves were big," one of the survivors, Jesus Gica, told a radio station. He said he had seen passengers losing consciousness and children unable to wear their life vests.

Gica also reported that elderly people, unable to escape, had been trapped underneath the sunken ferry.

Dozens of relatives of the passengers went to the ferry company's office in Manila, demanding to know what had happened to their loved ones.

"I'm very worried; I need to know what happened to my family," Felino Farionin, whose wife, son and in-laws were on the ferry, told The Associated Press.

According to the government, the ferry was carrying 702 passengers, 45 of them children and 121 crew members.

Typhoon Fengshen made landfall Saturday and battered several provinces. It knocked down power lines in the capital and elsewhere, caused landslides and capsized small boats.

Packing winds of up to 150 kilometers an hour, about 95 miles an hour, Fengshen was headed out of the country Sunday afternoon but wrought additional havoc in the northern Philippines, weather officials said.

The bad weather hampered efforts to locate the Princess of the Stars and its passengers, coast guard officials said.

According to The AP, a coast guard spokesman, Lieutenant Senior Grade Arman Balilo, said: "They haven't seen anyone. They're scouring the area. They're studying the direction of the waves to determine where survivors may have drifted."

Officials were checking reports that some people had reached a nearby island and that a raft was spotted off another, another coast guard spokesman, Commander Antonio Cuasito, said, The AP reported. "We can only pray that there are many survivors so we can reduce the number of casualties," he said.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is in the United States for a state visit, scolded coast guard officials during a teleconference Sunday for allowing the ferry to sail despite warnings about the typhoon. She ordered government agencies to coordinate rescue and relief efforts.

The coast guard said the Princess of the Stars had been allowed to leave Manila on Friday evening for Cebu, a city in the central Philippines, because the storm had not yet made landfall.

Coast guard officials said the ferry should have been big enough to sail and that a warning issued earlier Saturday barred only small boats from traveling.

In Iloilo Province, in the central Philippines, the governor, Neil Tupaz, reported that 59 people had died and that more than two dozen others were missing. "Iloilo is like an ocean," Tupaz said in a radio interview. "This is the worst disaster we have had in our history."

In the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, 10 people died after they were swept away by rushing water, while 4 others drowned when their fishing boats capsized.

In Cotabato City, an elderly man and his 10-year-old grandson were buried alive in a landslide caused by heavy rains Saturday.

Officials said tens of thousands of displaced residents had been moved to evacuation centers. Flights were canceled and classes for Monday were suspended.

Each year, about 20 typhoons slam into the Philippines, an archipelago that faces the Pacific and is in the natural path of typhoons.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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