CEBU — Stormy weather has forced divers in the central Philippines to halt their search for up to 170 people missing at sea after a passenger ferry collided with a cargo ship and sank.
At least 31 of the 831 passengers and crew are confirmed dead following the accident off the coast of Cebu province. Hundreds of people were rescued. Authorities believe an unknown number of the 170 people listed as missing are trapped inside the ferry, which came to rest more than 30 meters below the surface outside Cebu port.
The Philippines transportation secretary, Joseph Emilio Abaya, says the search will resume early Sunday.
The ferry St. Thomas Aquinas collided with the 11,000-ton freighter Sulpicio Express 7 relatively close to shore, nearly 600 kilometers southwest of Manila. The captain gave orders to abandon ship and many people strapped on life jackets and oleaped into the sea, but the 40-year-old ferry sank within minutes.
The ferry passengers included scores of children and infants.
On average, ferry accidents kill hundreds of people each year in the Philippines - an archipelago of 7,100 islands that has a notoriously poor record for maritime safety. The world's worst peacetime sea disaster was in the Philippines in 1987, when 4,375 passengers and crew aboard the ferry Dona Paz died after a collision with a freighter in the Sibuyan Sea. Only 26 people survived.
Transportation Secretary Joseph Amilio Abaya said the Philippines' president has ordered investigators to look into the collision Friday night.
"It is a fact-finding body. It will not determine liability, its primary purpose is to gather facts, to make sure that such an incident will never happen again," he said. "MARINA [Marine Industry Authority] will convene its own investigation. It will also determine liability as to personnel, criminal and likewise as to the CPCs [Certificate of Public Convenience] and to the franchises.''