By Enrique de Castro
CEBU, Philippines (Reuters) - Worsening weather and sea conditions on Saturday forced the Philippines to suspend a search for survivors of a ferry disaster that killed at least 32 people and left 170 missing, authorities said.
The ferry sank on Friday after a collision just outside the central port of Cebu with a cargo vessel owned by a company involved in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster nearly 30 years ago.
Divers will resume searching early on Sunday, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya told a news conference in Manila, after heavy rain brought by a typhoon and low pressure had reduced visibility at sea almost to zero.
"Diving operations stopped because of weather conditions," Abaya said, adding that 661 of the 831 passengers and crew on the ferry had been accounted for. With 32 dead and 629 rescued, there are 170 missing. Just 17 of the dead have been identified.
"But we've got information that some bodies have been recovered, and we expect the number of missing to decrease, and we expect the casualties to increase."
Many of the survivors were sick from swallowing oil and seawater, disaster officials said.
Scores, sometimes hundreds, of people die each year in ferry accidents in the Philippines, an archipelago of 7,100 islands with a notoriously poor record for maritime safety. Overcrowding is common, and many of the vessels are in bad condition.
The 40-year-old ferry was approaching Cebu late in the evening when it was struck by the departing cargo vessel, the Sulpicio Express 7, leaving two huge holes in the latter's bow. The ferry sank in minutes, about a kilometer off Cebu.
Small planes and helicopters also scoured the waters and coastal areas of Cebu island for survivors, officials said.
Divers found four bodies outside the sunken ferry hours before the search was halted, said Commander Noel Escalana, a naval operations officer.
"During the dive, they saw bodies from the windows," he told reporters, saying the divers did not attempt to retrieve them. "It's dangerous to enter the ship...Because they need special equipment and extra oxygen tanks."
Escalana added that rescuers had no idea how many people were trapped inside the ship, lying on a seabed around 150 feet below sea level.
Fourteen bodies had been found in the town of Talisay, south of Cebu City, said Imelda Sabillano, another local official.
"We don't know where these bodies came from, but we already have brought to a local morgue 31 bodies for identification," she said, adding that morgue officials awaited the arrival of the 14 bodies to add them to the toll from the disaster.
Officials said a recount at the morgue showed 32 bodies awaited autopsy.
The Sulpicio Express 7 is owned by unlisted firm Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp, formerly known as Sulpicio Lines Inc, which owned the MV Dona Paz ferry.
That vessel 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.
The owners of the ferry involved in Friday's accident said it was carrying 723 passengers, 118 crew and 104 20-ft containers. It had an authorized capacity of 1,010 passengers and crew and 160 containers.
The captains of the two ships are alive but have yet to be questioned, said Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, the coast guard operations chief.
Abaya said initial information showed the cargo ship loaded with container vans bound for Davao on the southern island of Mindanao hit the ferry's "vulnerable part" on the right side.
"We felt the cargo ship hit us and minutes later we noticed our ship was listing," passenger Aldrin Raman told reporters. "I grabbed a life vest and jumped overboard. I saw many passengers doing the same."
One of the crew said the ferry sank within 10 minutes.
"The collision left a gaping hole in the ferry and water started rushing in, so the captain ordered (us to) abandon ship," the crew member said. Most of the passengers were already wearing life jackets before the ship sank, he added.
Another passenger, Jerwin Agudong, said several people had been trapped. "It seems some were not able to get out. We saw dead bodies on the side," he said.
Fishermen on shore said they saw flares.
"It was very dark and we could hear a lot of people shouting, asking for help," said George Palmero, a 35-year-old fisherman who helped pull 10 survivors from the water.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco, Manuel Mogato and Roli Ng; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)