ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: Four people drowned Sunday when a passenger ferry with 964 people aboard sank in the southern Philippines, leaving about 90 missing, officials said.
The Superferry 9 sank hours after it tilted to the right by 40 degrees off Siocon town in Zamboanga del Norte province, 810 km south of Manila, navy spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Edgard Arevalo said.
"Four people are already dead," he said.
Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said the dead included a man and a child who drowned as some passengers jumped into the water in panic.
Teodoro said "less than 100, about 90 or so" of the 847 passengers and 117 crew were unaccounted for.
He said the navy, coast guard and air force were all helping search for the missing people. He added that Aboitiz Transport Systems Corp, owner of the Superferry 9, was also cooperating with the authorities.
The ferry issued a distress signal before dawn Sunday as it listed dangerously in the waters off Siocon. It left the southern city of General Santos Saturday en route to the central city of Iloilo when the accident happened.
Jess Supan, Aboitiz vice president for safety and security, said the boat’s captain had ordered passengers and crew to abandon ship two hours after the ship started to list.
"The captain declared abandon ship… more as a precautionary measure instead of waiting for the vessel to topple over," he said. "Everybody was given their life jackets…."
The rescued passengers were transferred to two Aboitiz cargo ships and a navy vessel.
Roger Sinsiron, a passenger on the ferry, told a Manila radio station by telephone that people panicked because they could feel the ship tilting.
"It now feels like the ship is 90 percent tilted on the side," he said as he waited with about 50 others to be transferred to the cargo ships.
Sinsiron said he was awakened by the sound of crashing cargo as the vessel slanted dangerously.
Sea travel is a major mode of transportation in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands.
In June 2008, a passenger ferry sank off the central Philippines at the height of Typhoon Fengshen, drowning over 800 passengers.
The country was the site of the world’s worst peacetime shipping disaster in 1987, when more than 4,000 people perished in a collision between the ferry Dona Paz and an oil tanker off the central island of Mindoro just before Christmas.