The number of people killed in the ship collision off Talisay, Cebu, rose to 38 Sunday as authorities battled with bad weather and an oil spill while retrieving bodies and searching for more survivors, a Coast Guard official said.

Five bodies were recovered by technical divers Sunday near the area where the ill-fated M/V St. Thomas Aquinas sank, raising the number of fatalities to 38, Cmdr. Winiel Azcuna, Coast Guard Station Cebu commander, said.

“They (divers) have not yet penetrated the vessel, the bodies were retrieved outside the vessel, na-trap lang dun sa mga debris,” Azcuna said in a phone interview shortly before 5 p.m.

The technical divers, however, were experiencing difficulty in entering the ship because of strong waves and currents, he said.

“Malakas ‘yung alon and they need to place safety lines nang hindi naman ma-trap sa ilalim ‘yung divers natin,” Azcuna said.

No ‘retrieval’ yet

All missing persons, fatalities and survivors were occupants of the St. Thomas Aquinas, which sank after colliding with M/V Sulpicio Express Siete near Lauis Ledge around 9 p.m. Friday.

Azcuna said there were still no plans to shift to “retrieval” operations because 48 hours have not yet passed since the St. Thomas Aquinas sank.

“As of this time, since the incident transpired, wala pa naman pong 48 hours, so the protocol of the Coast Guard states that it is still search and rescue operation. We will evaluate the situation further if we will downgrade it to retrieval operation, maybe tomorrow or the next day,” he said.

Seventy-five passengers and seven crew members remain missing. The number of survivors is now at 750, broken down as 644 passengers and 106 crew members, he said.

Oil spill poses threat

Aside from the bad sea condition, another challenge for the divers was to avoid the fuel that is now spilling from the St. Thomas Aquinas.

The oil spill has spread towards the shores of Talisay, Cordova town, and Mactan Island so the Coast Guard deployed some of its personnel to contain it, Azcuna said.

“The Philippine Coast Guard has deployed Marine Environment Protection Unit personnel and they are now spraying dispersants, hanggang sa ma-disperse natin itong oil and ma-minimize yung effect of the oil at the shore lines. At the same time, 2Go has accredited Malayan Towage to conduct oil spill containment operations,” he said.

Ship captains in custody

Meanwhile, Azcuna said the captains of both the St. Thomas Aquinas and Sulpicio Express Siete are both alive and are in “temporary custody” of their respective shipping companies.

“There is an agreement between the Coast Guard and the shipping companies that they will make available their captains and crew when the board of marine inquiry in Manila will be convened,” Azcuna noted.

The St. Thomas Aquinas, owned by 2Go Group Inc. was skippered by Capt. Reynan Bermejo. Sulpicio Express Siete is owned by Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., formerly known as Sulpicio Lines Inc.

Bermejo was among those who were found by local fishermen immediately after the St. Thomas Aquinas sank, according to Lt. Jim Alagao, Armed Forces Central Command public affairs officer. (John Roson)

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