WASHINGTON – President Bush offered condolences Tuesday to those in the Philippines harmed by Typhoon Fengshen, and said the U.S. was sending the USS Ronald Reagan to the scene to help.
"We're happy to do it," Bush told Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after a meeting in the Oval Office. "We want to help our friends in a time of need."
Bush said that the aircraft carrier and other Navy assets will move into place immediately. The powerful storm hit over the weekend, leaving dozens dead in flooded communities in the central Philippines.
The situation was compounded when a ferry carrying about 850 people capsized Saturday during the height of the storm. Only about three dozen survivors have been found so far. U.S. ships were helping with the search-and-rescue effort.
Bush sent prayers on behalf of fellow Americans.
"I know there's some families that are hurting," he said. "Some are wondering whether or not their loved ones will reappear."
The Ronald Reagan strike group consists of the carrier, a cruiser, three destroyers and a frigate. The group left about 100 American sailors behind in Hong Kong when it had to depart port on Sunday, a day early, because of safety concerns related to the typhoon. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has about 6,000 sailors aboard.
Typhoon Fengshen's strength weakened to a tropical storm Tuesday.
The rescue effort continued Tuesday, with divers wriggling into an upside-down ferry and finding bodies but no survivors three days after the vessel capsized during the powerful typhoon, officials said.
The bodies included what appeared to be one of the ship's officers still clutching a radio, coast guard Commodore Luis Tuason said, adding that two bodies had been retrieved.
Hundreds of people are feared to have been trapped when the ship suddenly tilted and went belly up Saturday at the height of the powerful storm that left 163 people dead in flooded communities in the central Philippines.
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Philippines Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Edgard Arevalo would not speculate on whether anyone might be found alive but indicated the amount of time passed made it unlikely. He said the ship's interior was too dark to determine how many bodies were there and lighting was being brought in.
"Most of the bodies were floating inside. They were trapped when the seven-story ship suddenly tilted and capsized," he told dzBB radio.
Arevalo said it was possible some passengers could have survived initially, but the roiling seas from Typhoon Fengshen had kept rescuers at bay too long and suffocation may have claimed some lives.
He said some of the bodies had life vests but many passengers apparently hesitated to jump into the "turbulent waters" before the ship capsized because "it happened too sudden." Survivors said the ship listed and went down in a half-hour or less.
"If there are survivors, they could only be found in the forward portion, because if the vessel is no longer watertight, water would enter all its spaces that are submerged," Arevalo said.
Coast guard chief Adm. Wilfredo Tamayo said about 20 coast guard and navy divers were at the scene and that the U.S. Navy ship Stockham had arrived with frogmen and search-and-rescue helicopters.
He said the divers had broken windows and used every other gap they could find to slip inside the 23,824-ton Princess of Stars, which has only one end jutting from the water off Sibuyan island.
Arevalo said the priority now is how to extricate the bodies. He said options include attaching weights to them and then pulling them out, or cutting the hull — a prospect complicated by a cargo of bunker oil that could leak and turn the human disaster into an environmental one.
On Sunday, divers heard no response when they hammered on the hull, but officials had refused to give up.
Only about three dozen ferry survivors have been found, including 28 who drifted at sea for more than 24 hours, first in a life raft, then in life jackets, before they were found Sunday about 80 miles to the north in eastern Quezon province.
Officials initially reported 747 passengers and crew were aboard the ferry, but said Monday that it was carrying about 100 more.
Six bodies, including those of a man and woman who had bound themselves together, have washed ashore, along with children's slippers and life jackets.
While some relatives tearfully waited for news, others angrily questioned why the ship was allowed to leave Manila late Friday for a 20-hour trip to Cebu with a typhoon approaching.
Sulpicio Lines said it sailed with coast guard approval. The government ordered the company to suspend services pending an investigation and a check of its other ships' seaworthiness.
Debate also began anew on safe-sailing rules in a country prone to storms — Fengshen was the seventh typhoon this year — and dependent on ferries to get around the sprawling archipelago.