Rescuers Search for 21 Passengers From Capsized Ferry in the Philippines

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Rescue teams mounted a search Sunday for 21 people, including a town mayor and a group of students, missing after their ferry sank in the southern Philippines in bad weather, officials said. Fourteen bodies have been recovered.

Surigao del Norte provincial governor Lyndon Barbers said 66 people were rescued by a passing boat and coast guard personnel in the waters where the ferry Leonida II capsized Saturday afternoon off Hinatuan island, about 710 kilometers (444 miles) southeast of Manila.

The wooden-hulled ferry, which was also carrying 300 sacks of cement and 18 sacks of rice, ran into large waves that damaged its bamboo outrigger, which provides balance to the vessel, and caused the boat to sink, Barbers told The Associated Press by telephone.

Authorities initially said 18 people were missing but more relatives came forward to report loved ones who had been in the ferry, Barbers said.

A passing boat, the MV Sofia, rescued passengers and crewmen who jumped off the ferry. Coast guard personnel rescued two crewmembers off Hinatuan early Sunday, he said.

The ferry was headed to Del Carmen town on Siargao Island from Surigao city when it encountered rough seas and rain. There was no major storm in the area but the weather rapidly turned bad ahead of the sinking, coast guard officials said.

Among those missing was Del Carmen town Mayor Arlyn Navarro and a councilor from Surigao, Barbers said.

Navarro was apparently on the way back home along with a group of students, who had attended a conference in Siargao city, he said.

"This is so unfortunate a tragedy because the people were already looking up to Christmas," said Barbers as he visited an emergency center in Surigao city where the bodies of seven passengers were taken to be claimed by relatives.

Barbers said he has asked the navy to send deep-sea divers and may ask the air force to help in the search and rescue.

Boat accidents happen frequently in the Philippines because many ferries, a key mode of transport in the archipelago, are old and poorly maintained, while enforcement of safety regulations is weak.