CEBU, Philippines: The confirmed death toll from a ferry disaster in the Philippines rose to 52 on Monday as more bodies were retrieved while an oil spill spread, the coastguard said.
Divers and patrol boats fought strong currents to search for 68 others still missing since the St. Thomas Aquinas ferry collided with a cargo ship on Friday night and quickly sank near the central city of Cebu.
Officials believe many of the missing were trapped in the ferry, which lies on the seabed about 30 meters (98 feet) deep.
The latest confirmed death toll rose from 38 on Sunday night.
An AFP reporter saw a bloated body, which had been found floating in the water, being towed to shore by a coastal patrol boat on Monday morning.
Town coastal patrol watchman Zaldo Cabao-cabao, 37, said he had been assigned to find survivors and collect the dead.
“We saw this man floating on the water near the site of the accident. We decided to tow him because our boat is small and there is barely enough room for the four crewmen,” he told reporters as he brought the body in.
Cebu coastguard commander Weniel Azcuna said coastguard and navy divers had found bodies trapped in the debris near the ferry, but had not been able to penetrate the interior of the ship due to unfavorable weather.
As hope of finding more survivors faded, the government began concentrating on another problem: bunker fuel oil leaking unchecked from the ferry which was polluting nearby fishing grounds and beach resorts.
Authorities said the ferry was carrying 120,000 liters (32,000 gallons) of bunker fuel when it sank.
Malayan Towage, a company hired by the ferry operator to contain the oil spill, had told the coastguard that up to a quarter of the oil had already leaked out, Azcuna said.
The ferry operator, 2Go Travel, said two tugboats had been deployed with cleaning equipment like an oil boom, an oil skimmer, cleaning pads and chemical dispersants.
Teodulo Jumao-as, 53, head of a local fishermen’s association, said about 1,000 fishermen from the nearby town of Cordova had been affected.
“We can’t catch any fish because our nets get fouled up with oil, and the fish swim away. Those who dive and spear fish are also affected because they end up ingesting oil,” Jumao-as said.
“We call on those who caused this oil spill to help us. They were the ones who spilled this oil that is preventing us from fishing.”