MANILA - Philippine police filed murder charges against the owner and crew of the Philippine ferry that capsized in the east-central part of the country on Thursday, killing at least 59 people.
The complaints were filed with the local prosecutor late Friday as the 36-ton Kim Nirvana was lifted from the water, said Senior Inspector Rio Tan of the Ormoc City police.
Tan said the local prosecutor is reviewing complaints against ferry owner Joge Bung Zarco, boat captain Warren Oliverio and 17 other crew members to determine whether there is enough evidence to file charges.
Coast Guard spokesman Pedro Tinampay says the capsized 27-meter outrigger is being inspected onshore, but teams are still searching the waters off Ormoc City’s port for signs of life. Officials also said bad weather was hampering the search for bodies.
“If there is no chance of retrieving or recovering victims, then we will decide tomorrow whether to terminate the SAR operation,” he said, adding that search and rescue teams have accounted for more than 200 passengers — more than the 173 passengers and 14 crew listed on the vessel's log.
At least three foreigners, including two Canadians and one American, survived the accident, which occurred just minutes after the wooden ship departed Ormoc City on the island of Leyte on its regular route to the Camotes Islands
Lawrence Drake, a retired American firefighter who was among the survivors, disagreed with the complaints, saying that the crew members, especially the captain, did all they could to save the passengers.
"It's wrong. It's wrong. I feel bad," he told The Associated Press by phone from Ormoc.
While an initial investigation suggested a combination of bad weather and human error led to the wreck, Coast guard officials on Friday said faulty maneuvering and overloading were contributing factors. Officials say the 36-ton Kim Nirvana, also loaded with sacks of rice and cement, turned on its side just moments after it left the port at Ormoc, a major trade hub in the eastern Visayas.
Eyewitnesses said the vessel was buffeted by strong waves when it made a sharp right turn; passengers then crowded one side of the boat, causing it to list. At least 141 passengers were rescued or swam ashore after it capsized.
During a regular briefing on state-run radio Saturday, Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte defended government safety standards, saying factors “beyond government control,” such as human error, need to be taken into consideration.
“Government has always made it a point, at least under this administration, to make sure that we have competent officials that would be running the safety checks on these people," she said. "But in any case, we don’t want to pass judgment on this particular case yet, because as you know there is an ongoing investigation.”
Sea mishaps throughout the 7,100 islands that comprise the archipelago nation are often blamed on bad weather, poorly maintained fleets, poor safety standards and lax regulatory enforcement.
Two years ago, 35 people died after a passenger ferry and a cargo ship slammed into each other while passing through a narrow stretch in central Philippine waters.
In 1987, the M-V Doña Paz ferry and an oil tanker collided in bad weather, also in the central Philippines, killing more than 4,300 people.