A ferry carrying nearly 1,000 passengers sank in the southern Philippines early Sunday, leaving at least nine dead and more than 30 missing.

The Superferry 9 began to list before dawn about nine miles off Zamboanga del Norte province, rousing terrified passengers from their sleep and sending many jumping into the water, coast guard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said.

Rescuers transferred 900 of 968 passengers and crewmen to two nearby commercial ships, a navy gunboat and a fishing boat, he said. A search was under way for 33 people who remained missing, Tamayo said.

"We really hope they're just unaccounted for due to the confusion," Tamayo told The Associated Press.

A coast guard statement said rescue efforts were continuing through the night.

Passenger Roger Cinciron told DZMM radio he felt the ferry tilting at about midnight but was assured by a crewman that everything was well. About two hours later, he was roused from sleep by the sound of crashing cargo below his cabin, he said.

"People began to panic because the ship was really tilting," he said as he waited for rescuers to save him and a group of more than 20 other passengers.

Reymark Belgira, another passenger, said many panicked as the huge ferry turned. He said he saw parents tossing children to people on life rafts below, but he could not immediately jump himself.

"I held on to the ferry for hours until day break. I couldn't jump into the water in the dark," he said.

Navy ships were deployed and three military aircraft scoured the seas, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said. American troops providing counterterrorism training to Philippine soldiers in the region deployed a civilian helicopter and five boats, some carrying paramedics, to help, U.S. Col. William Coultrup said.

Teodoro said two men and a child drowned during the scramble to escape the ship. The bodies of two other passengers were later plucked from the sea by fishermen, the coast guard said, adding three people were injured.

A Canadian tourist, Jeffrey Predchuz, was among the survivors, officials said.

The cause of the listing was not clear. The ferry skipper initially ordered everyone on board to abandon ship as a precautionary step, said Jess Supan, vice president of Aboitiz Transport System, which owns the steel-hulled ferry.

There were reports the 7,268-ton vessel listed to the right because of a hole in the hull, the National Disaster Coordinating Council said.

Aerial photos from the navy showed survivors holding on to anything as the ferry tilted. Others climbed down a ladder on the side as a lone orange life raft waited below.

The ferry left the southern port city of General Santos on Saturday and was scheduled to arrive in Iloilo city in the central Philippines later Sunday but ran into problems midway, Tamayo said.

There were no signs of possible terrorism, he said.

Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants bombed another Superferry in Manila Bay in 2004, setting off an inferno that killed 116 people in Southeast Asia's second-worst terrorist attack.

The weather was generally fair in the Zamboanga peninsula region, about 530 miles south of Manila, although a tropical storm was battering the country's mountainous north, the coast guard said.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of tropical storms, badly maintained boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations.

Last year, a ferry overturned after sailing toward a powerful typhoon in the central Philippines, killing more than 800 people on board.

In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.