SIBUYAN ISLAND, Philippines (Reuters) - The Philippines halted a search for hundreds of bodies feared trapped inside a capsized passenger ferry on Friday after authorities learnt that 10 tonnes of pesticide was on board.
The Princess of the Stars ran aground during a typhoon and then overturned in about 15 minutes off Sibuyan island in the central Philippines on Saturday. The vessel had 865 passengers and crew.
Angry officials said Sulpicio Lines, the vessel’s owner, would be held accountable for not alerting them to the 400 boxes of endosulfan.
Exposure to the deadly chemical, which is highly restricted, can cause nausea, convulsions and death. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as highly toxic.
Philippines Vice President Noli de Castro said had officials been told earlier about the cargo, divers would not have been sent to the vessel to search for bodies.
“This is in pure form and in powder form, so it is very dangerous, if it gets wet even a little,” de Castro said.
“This should not even be aboard a passenger ship.”
There is no sign the pesticide has leaked but the government banned fishing in the waters off Sibuyan island and sealed off the area around the vessel while they awaited test results.
Fishermen said the order would devastate their livelihood.
“This makes us even worse off,” said Juanito Reyes.
A government taskforce is handling the aftermath of the ferry disaster, which occurred after Typhoon Fengshen changed course and swept across central and southern Philippines.
The overall death toll from the typhoon could top 1,300, including more than 500 people killed in a torrent of flooding that tore up trees and bridges, destroyed homes and forced over two million people to evacuate.
The Philippines’ Fertiliser and Pesticides Authority (FPA) told the taskforce on Thursday the pesticide was bound for a Del Monte plantation in the southern Philippines.
Sulpicio Lines, already under fire for allowing the ferry to sail during a typhoon, said it did not know about the cargo.
“We were not aware of any pesticide on board,” said Ryan Go, a company executive.
According to officials, Del Monte wrote to the FPA on Tuesday about the shipment.
The discovery of the chemical was a grim reminder of how standards are flouted in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands with a woeful record in maritime safety.
The incident is likely to be the Philippines’ worst sea accident since the Dona Paz ferry collided with an oil tanker in 1987, killing more than 4,000 people.
Sulpicio Lines also owned the Dona Paz. The company has also been involved in two other major shipping accidents.
Disaster officials said the removal of the pesticide would only start at the weekend because special protective diving gear needed to be obtained from Singapore.
Extracting the container safely will be difficult. The stern of the seven-storey ship is resting on the edge of a reef with only the tip of its bow visible from shore. There is also about 100,000 litres of fuel still on board.
Efforts to retrieve bodies from the ship will be postponed till next week, adding to the misery of distraught family members.
In the central city of Cebu, where most of the passengers were from, more than 1,000 relatives lined up to view 49 corpses, most of them found floating in life-vests. The bodies were lined up side-by-side on the floor of a funeral parlour.
A handful were positively identified by clothes, scars and jewellery, including a policeman who was returning from Manila on the ferry after processing his retirement papers.
Wearing face-masks, relatives wept. Some fainted and vomited, at what they saw. One of the bodies, a female, was clutching a headless baby to her chest.
Across the street, music blared from karaoke bars.
“You can’t stay in there for long,” said Alma Armella, who was looking for her husband. “The smell is overpowering.”
So far, only 56 survivors have been found; either plucked from the water by fishermen or washed up on surrounding islands. Only around a dozen bodies have been removed from the ship.
Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema in Manila and Manny Mogato in Cebu; Writing by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by David Fogarty