MANILA, Philippines – Survivors from a ferry that sank after encountering steering problems in the central Philippines said Sunday that they floated and were tossed about by the churning sea in pitch-black darkness for six hours while praying and holding on to an overturned life raft before a passing ship rescued them from death.
"A few more hours in those huge, huge waves and we could have all died," said ferry passenger Romeo Cabag, a 32-year-old security guard who survived with his wife, Wilma. "I had cramps in both legs, was exhausted and at one point I was beginning to pray that if I won't make it, that God allow at least my wife to live."
Rescuers, including the crew on two passing foreign vessels, plucked at least 111 survivors, including the Cabag couple, from the dangerously shifting waters. They recovered at least three bodies from the M/V Maharlika II that listed then sank at nightfall Saturday, Red Cross aid worker Edward Barbero said.
The ferry encountered steering trouble off Southern Leyte province then was battered by huge waves and fierce wind whipped up by a typhoon north of the ferry's path, coast guard Capt. Joseph Coyme said.
Search and rescue efforts by air and sea continued Sunday because it was uncertain how many passengers and crewmembers were on the Maharlika, he said.
"There are discrepancies in the numbers and we cannot terminate the search and rescue until we're sure that everybody has been accounted for," Coyme told The Associated Press by cellphone from the central city of Surigao, where the survivors were taken.
"Every single life is important," he said.
As Coyme spoke, an air force helicopter flew low overhead to start a search. Coast guard personnel could be heard using two-way radio to ask civilian ships leaving the Surigao port to "help look for survivors, life vests" near the scene of the accident and along the coast.
Ambulance vans stood at the seaport in Surigao and nearby towns to assist any more survivors.
With clear weather in the central provinces south of the typhoon, the coast guard cleared the Maharlika to leave Surigao city around noon Saturday for a regular domestic run. The skipper sent the distress call a few hours later and several passengers used their cellphones to call for help when the ferry's steering mechanism malfunctioned and fierce wind and big waves began to batter the stalled vessel, Coyme and other coast guard officials said.
As the ferry frighteningly listed, Cabag said he, his wife and other passengers were handed life jackets. Amid the frenzy and cries for help, they uttered a prayer and jumped into the rough waters in panic. They struggled to swim into an overturned life raft that was not adequately inflated and held to the ropes on its sides for seven hours.
A passing cargo ship with a spotlight saw them in the darkness but sailed away after failing to maneuver close toward Cabag's group of survivors because of the big waves. When a second ship with a search light passed close by, Cabag and his companions used their remaining strength to raise their life jackets with reflectors.
"The tanker's moving spotlight hit the reflectors and they noticed us," Cabag told AP by cellphone. "Death was in our minds for several hours in the water until a crewmember from the second ship used a megaphone with a message that drove some of my fellow survivors to tears: 'Hold on, hold on, don't let go, all of you will be saved."
An elderly man and a woman in their group, however, perished, their bodies still attached to their life ring and jacket, Cabag said, adding it underscored the ordeal they went through.
Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for past accidents at sea in the Philippines, including in 1987 when the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.
Associated Press writer Oliver Teves contributed to this report.