TALISAY, PHILPPINES // As rescuers plucked more bodies from the sea after a Philippine ferry and a cargo ship collided, killing at least 38 people, a vexing but familiar question faced a country plagued by an abysmal record in maritime safety: what went wrong?
Eighty-two people listed as missing are believed to have died, trapped in the ferry that sank to the sea floor off the central Philippine port of Cebu minutes after the collision on Friday night. Divers yesterday tried to cut into the vessel, at a depth of 45 metres, and plug an oil leak.
Relatives flocked to a ticketing office of the ferry owner, 2GO Group, and pasted pictures of their missing loved ones. Others, like Richard Ortiz, waited quietly and stared blankly at the vast sea from the Talisay pier, where coastguard and navy rescuers have encamped.
"I just want to see my parents," said Mr Ortiz, who clutched a picture of his father and mother. "This is so difficult."
Although a formal investigation will not begin until after the rescue operation, attention is already turning to the final moments in the latest fatal shipping disaster to strike the Philippines, a country of 7,100 islands, where overcrowded or overloaded vessels are common and sea regulations are notoriously hard to enforce.
The MV St Thomas Aquinas, an inter-island ferry loaded with 870 passengers and crew, had been at sea for about nine hours after leaving Nasipit, a port on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, when it approached Cebu, a bustling economic zone about 560km south of Manila.
The yellow-hulled MV Sulpicio Express 7, laden with containers, had just left Cebu's port with 36 crew.
As they both entered a narrow channel about 550 metres wide in the dark at about 9pm, they appeared to have strayed in to the same lane from opposite sides.
Under navigational rules, both vessels must steer to the right if they are on a collision course.
The ferry repeatedly blew its horn and sent warning signals, said 2GO Group. "They blew their horns several times before the collision," Bimsy Mapa, spokesman for 2GO Group, said.
Another 2GO Group official said the ferry could not veer right because the water was too shallow on that side.
"Our options were to turn right or left, but we couldn't turn right because we would hit shallow waters so we veered left," he said.
Philippine Span Asia Carrier, which owns the cargo ship, declined to comment. The vessel remains in Cebu with a gaping hole in its bow.
"We need to review whether both ships followed regulations," said Commodore William Melad, the head of the coastguard district in the central Visayas region. "If they are approaching each other, there should be a safe distance. Otherwise, you signify intention to move to the right and the other should move to the right also, so that there won't be any collision."
He said the vessels' speed would also be checked for possibly being in breach of the law.
Tug boats typically accompany ships arriving and departing within one kilometre from the port, but the accident happened four kilometres out at sea.
Authorities have suspended passenger and cargo shipping operations of both companies.
The cargo vessel's owners were formerly known as Sulpicio Lines, which owned the MV Dona Paz ferry that collided with a tanker in the Sibuyan Sea in December 1987, killing 4,375 on the ferry and 11 of the tanker's 13-man crew. That ranks as the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.
The St Thomas Aquinas sank within minutes of the collision on Friday, but 750 people were rescued, mostly by fishing boats.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press