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Toxic Chemical Find Halts Search for Philippine Ferry Victims

Maritime authorities in the Philippines have suspended search and recovery efforts at a sunken ferry after a toxic pesticide was discovered inside the ship.

The Princess of the Stars ferry was transporting 10 metric tons of the pesticide when it capsized last Saturday off the central island of Sibuyan. The chemical was intended for use at pineapple plantations owned by the Del Monte company.

Officials say there do not appear to be any signs of contamination from the pesticide.

More than 850 passengers and crew were onboard the ferry when it sunk during Typhoon Fenghshen. Only 56 survivors have been found; 124 bodies have been recovered after they either washed ashore or were spotted floating in the sea.

At least 100 U.S. and Philippine naval divers had been searching the wreck, but they only recovered 15 bodies before the pesticide discovery forced a suspension of their efforts. The divers had been hampered by debris blocking the ferry's submerged passageways.

The vessel's owner, Sulpicio Lines, is banned from operating while transportation authorities conduct an investigation into the disaster. Officials say the company could face legal proceedings for not informing the Philippine government about the pesticide.

Sulpicio is one of the largest ferry operators in the Philippines and it has been involved in three other maritime disasters. In 1987, more than 4,000 people died when Sulpicio's Dona Paz ferry collided with a tanker.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.