MANILA, Philippines – A Philippine air force helicopter plucked to safety Monday a woman who drifted for about 30 hours in choppy seas after the sinking of a ferry that left nine dead. Only one of the nearly 1,000 people on board is now unaccounted for.
Housewife Lita Casumlum, 39, was found bobbing with a life jacket about 8 miles from where the 7,269-ton Superferry 9 sank on Sunday. Rear Admiral Alex Pama, who helped supervise the rescue, called it "a miracle."
"She has been drifting amid huge waves for a long time without any food or water," Pama said.
Casumlum was reported to be weak and frail after her ordeal. A local TV network aired footage of the woman, her face sunburned. She was taken to a military hospital for treatment.
A massive air, land and sea search will continue for the lone missing passenger, and a special coast guard ship has been deployed to check signs of an oil spill, officials said.
Coast guard chief Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo said an investigation will begin later this week to find out why the vessel — its power flickering on and off — sank off the southern province of Zamboanga del Norte province.
It had set sail from General Santos in the south on Saturday and was headed to Iloilo city in the central Philippines.
The Philippines has suffered numerous maritime disasters in the past. Officials said Monday that the successful rescue effort this time was largely due to help given by two passing cargo ships and military bomber planes and gunboats which are used to fight al-Qaida-linked militants and are based about 43 miles away from where the ferry sank.
Capt. Jose Yap, who was among the survivors, issued the "abandon ship" order at 4:40 a.m. after the ferry started listing. The vessel, built in 1986 in Japan, sank six hours later, the coast guard said.
As panic ensued, passengers leapt into the dark sea and parents dropped children into life rafts bobbing in the choppy sea, according to witnesses.
The passing cargo and container ships arrived less than an hour after receiving a coast guard emergency call for assistance. About two hours later, two assault navy boats guided by two OV-10 bomber planes and two Huey helicopters arrived and began to pluck survivors from the ferry and the sea, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino said.
"When our assets arrived, people were floating everywhere," Dolorfino told The Associated Press, adding the military searched a three-mile radius from the sinking ferry.
"The presence of many military assets in the area was a big factor," he said.
A military pilot on Monday reported what appears to be an oil slick near where the ferry sank. The coast guard, which has deployed a containment ship to the area, has been informed and will verify if there has been an oil spill from the ferry, which reportedly carried 250 tons of fuel and lubricant oil, Pama said.
Tamayo said there was no sign terrorism played any part in the sinking.
Abu Sayyaf militants bombed another Superferry in Manila Bay in 2004, setting off an inferno that killed 116 people.
Last year, a ferry rapidly 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.