(Updated 6 p.m.) At least 31 people died while 629 others were rescued and 216 more remain missing after a passenger vessel collided with a cargo ship and sank in waters off Talisay, Cebu, Friday night, authorities said.

Cmdr. Winiel Azcuna, Coast Guard Station Cebu commander, gave the figures as Navy vessels, Coast Guard ships, and civilian seacraft continued to scour the seas for survivors Saturday.

The fatalities include four persons who divers recovered near the area where the ill-fated M/V St. Thomas Aquinas sank, Lt. Jim Alagao, Armed Forces’ Central Command (Centcom) public affairs officer, said.

“Kasama na diyan ‘yung apat na nakita sa vicinity ng lumubog na Aquinas. Nakuha ng mga divers ng NAVSOU5 (Naval Special Operations Unit-5) at a depth of 120 feet (36.58 meters),” Alagao said in a text message.

Of the survivors, 247 were brought to different hospitals in Cebu City for treatment and medical checks, he said.

Navy troops also rescued an infant, who was in critical condition and brought to a Coast Guard vessel so it can be quickly taken to a hospital, Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic said in a statement.

Some 58 infants were reportedly on board the St. Thomas Aquinas when it sank after colliding with Sulpicio Lines’ cargo ship, M/V Sulpicio Express-7, around 9 p.m. Friday near Lauis Ledge, according to the Navy.

Divers scattered

Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, Centcom chief, said Navy and Coast Guard divers were deployed Saturday morning to the collision site and found the sunken ship at about 150 feet (45.7 meters).

Technical divers were also set to come to help authorities determine if there are still people inside the ship, he said.

The site of the collision is about 600 yards (548 meters) west of Lauis Ledge and 45 fathoms (82.3 meters) deep, Alagao said.

More Navy divers from Manila and Palawan arrived in Cebu on a C-130 military plane on Saturday to join the search for the missing persons, he said.

The missing persons, fatalities, and survivors were all occupants of the M/V St. Thomas Aquinas, Azcuna said.

Weather threatens search

Saturday’s search and rescue operations went smoothly until the afternoon, when the weather turned bad.

“Huminto sa pagpapalipad ng dalawang choppers due to bad weather,” Alagao said in a text message past 3 p.m.

Azcuna said the Cebu City Pier, where his Coast Guard Station sits, even experienced a power outage in the afternoon.

Search for the missing persons continued despite this. “Tuluy-tuloy po ‘yung operation natin, together with the Philippine Navy and other local government units,” Azcuna said.

The operations were launched after authorities received a distress call from the St. Thomas Aquinas a few minutes after 9 p.m. Friday.

The St. Thomas Aquinas, owned by 2Go Group Inc., started taking in water right after the collision and was already sinking two hours later, Deveraturda said.

“‘Yung barko ay nag-take in ng water and is starting to [sink], palubog na… pumapasok na ‘yung water sa hull niya,” Deveraturda said when reached by phone 11 p.m. Friday.

Only 841 in manifest

In a statement posted on its website, 2Go said the St. Thomas Aquinas’ manifest listed only 723 passengers and 118 crew, or a total of 841 people, as well as 104 units of 20-footer containers.

Tallying the number of fatalities, survivors, and missing persons provided by the authorities puts the number of people on the vessel at 876, or 35 more than those in the manifest as claimed by 2Go.

But 2Go said the ship has an “authorized capacity” of 1,010 passengers and crew, and 160 units of 20-footer containers.

Earlier, Deveraturda said initial reports from the ground indicated that the St. Thomas Aquinas only had 690 passengers.

Minda Morante, Office of Civil Defense-7 director, said she received “raw information” that only more than 400 passengers were listed when the St. Thomas Aquinas left Nasipit Port in Agusan del Norte for Cebu.

“Minsan merong mga nakaakyat na sa barko, doon na lang kumukuha ng ticket, hindi mo talaga ma-account yan,” Morante said.

Ill-fated meeting

According to 2Go, the St. Thomas Aquinas came from Surigao and Nasipit Port, and headed to Cebu for a 10 p.m. stopover before proceeding to Manila.

The Sulpicio Express-7, on the other hand, had just left Cebu City Pier for Davao, Morante said.

“Papasok na siya (M/V St. Thomas Aquinas) sa Cebu City port, tapos ‘yung isa namang barko from the Cebu City port, palabas naman, nagpang-abot sila, ganoon ang nangyari,” she said.

Morante said she alerted all hospitals in Talisay and nearby towns upon learning about the mishap because of an expected influx of patients.

“Nag-alerto tayo ng mga ospital na silang lahat ay to recieve and receive, kasi di ‘yun kakayanin lahat ng Talisay District Hospital,” she said.

“Immediately after the collision, the crew of the M/V St. Thomas distributed life jackets to the passengers and carried out emergency abandon-ship procedures. At the same time, the ship’s officers sent a distress signal to the nearest Philippine Coast Guard Station to alert them for immediate rescue operations,” 2Go said for its part.

An emergency operations center was also activated at port to give assistance, including meal packs and dry clothes, to survivors, it said.

“Those needing medical attention have been attended to by onsite medical personnel while others have already been brought to nearby hospitals. The rest of the passengers have been offered accommodations at a nearby hotel,” the company added. (John Roson)

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