(Adds U.S. vessel en route, comments from ship’s owner)
By Manny Mogato
CEBU, Philippines, June 23 (Reuters) - Rescuers scoured the seas around a capsized ferry in the Philippines on Monday for more than 800 people missing after it sank two days ago, as the official death toll from a typhoon rose to about 160.
Coast guard boats searched the area around the ferry and divers were expected to drill into the side of the vessel where they hope survivors might be alive in air pockets. Only 33 people are known so far to have survived the ferry disaster.
A U.S. vessel was en route to help with search efforts and was expected to reach the site in around 15 hours, Jesus Dureza, a spokesman from the presidential palace said.
Nine male corpses believed to be passengers from the MV Princess of Stars washed ashore on the central island of Masbate on Monday.
“The bodies were bloated and decomposing. What we did was just to wrap them up and buried them right away,” a local mayor told radio.
Photographs showed only the tip of the ship’s bow visible above the waves.
Typhoon Fengshen, with maximum gusts of 195 kph (120 mph), pounded the archipelago at the weekend, washing away houses and roads and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate. In the worst-hit province of Iloilo, damage to agriculture and infrastructure was pegged at 1.7 billion pesos ($38 million).
The Department of Agriculture said in a statement nearly 250,000 ha of farmland was damaged, mostly paddy fields, at a cost of nearly 555 million pesos.
Disaster officials were worried about food supplies for evacuees, crammed into schools, churches and townhalls.
“I don’t think they have enough rice to tide them over,” Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippines’ Red Cross, told local television.
The typhoon is currently over the South China Sea and is expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it moves northwards.
It will likely bring heavy rain and winds to Taiwan and Zhangzhou and Fuzhou in China in the next few days according to storm tracker website www.tropicalstormrisk.com.
A passenger picked up by a fishing boat and 28 others who landed at a small coastal village after drifting for more than 24 hours in a rubber boat, were the latest survivors from the Princess of Stars.
Fifteen people were reported dead.
Philippine transport authorities said on Monday they had grounded the vessels of ferry company Sulpicio Lines for inspection. The company’s ships have been involved in three other major disasters over the past 21 years.
Distraught relatives of the 845-plus people on board the vessel complained to Sulpicio employees while waiting for news in the central city of Cebu, where the Princess of Stars was meant to dock.
“You can’t bring our loved ones back. You should be held responsible,” one woman told employees of the company.
A floor of the passenger terminal was converted into a mini chapel with a makeshift altar. Nuns and priests comforted those waiting.
During an emotional Catholic mass, one man pounded the wall in grief over his missing son.
Edward Go, one of Sulpicio’s owners, said the company was relying on the coast guard for information.
“We fully understand the feelings of the people and we are prepared to help them in any way we can, but, as of now there is really no information available,” he told Reuters.
The Red Cross’ Gordon said a survivor described mountainous waves and chaos as the ship went down on Saturday afternoon.
“According to him it was so dark, it was high noon but it was so dark, and there was too much rain and the waves were just too much for the ship,” Gordon said.
In 1987, the Sulpicio-owned Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker killing more than 4,000 people in the world’s worst peacetime sea tragedy.
An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year and has a long history of shipping tragedies. (Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Rosemarie Francisco; Writing by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)