CEBU – At least 31 people have died and around 170 are missing after a ferry collided with a cargo ship and sank off the Coast of the Philippines. The MV Thomas Aquinas was in collision with the cargo vessel on Friday evening near the central city of Cebu, officials said.
It was carrying 715 passengers and 116 crew, according to latest coast guard figures.
Divers have been searching for bodies in the ferry.
The incident took place around 2km (1.2 miles) from the shore.
The ferry was sailing into the port at Cebu – the country’s second biggest city – when it collided with the cargo ship travelling the other way at about 21:00 local time (13:00 GMT).
“The impact was very strong,” Rachel Capuno, a spokesperson for the owners of the ferry, told local radio.
Survivors said hundreds of passengers jumped into the ocean as the ferry began taking on water and listing. The crew distributed life jackets.
Many of the passengers were asleep and others struggled to find their way in the dark, reports said.
One survivor, Jerwin Agudong, said he and other passengers jumped overboard in front of the cargo vessel.
“It seems some people were not able to get out,” Mr Agudong told radio station DZBB. “I pity the children. We saw dead bodies on the side, and some being rescued.”
It is believed 58 babies were among the passengers on board but it is unclear how many of them survived.
The ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision, the AFP news agency reports.
Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, of the coast guard, said more bodies had been found on Saturday and that the death toll would almost certainly continue to rise.
“Because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside,” he told AFP.
Another coast guard official told reporters that the cargo ship, Sulpicio Express 7, had 36 crew members on board, but it did not sink.
Passengers on the ferry had embarked at Nasipit in the southern province of Agusan del Sur.
The coastguard and some commercial vessels, as well as local fishermen, were able to pick up more than 600 survivors.
Many of the survivors were sick from swallowing seawater and oil that is thought to have spilled from the ferry.
The 11,000 tonne ferry was 40 years old, and operated by a Chinese-owned company called 2Go, reports the BBC’s South East Asia Correspondent Jonathan Head.
The company became the largest ferry operator in the Philippines three years ago, following a merger of several smaller firms, our correspondent adds.
Joy Villages, an official at the coastguard’s public affairs office headquarters in Manila, told AFP it was too early to determine the cause of Friday’s collision.
She said the Thomas Aquinas was a “roll-on, roll-off” ferry that allows vehicles to be driven aboard and is commonly used in the Philippines.
Maritime accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of tropical weather, badly maintained passenger boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations.
The world’s worst maritime disaster in peacetime occurred in the Philippines in December 1987. More than 4,000 people died when the Dona Paz ferry collided with a tanker.