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Capsized Ferry Hit Heavy Waves Because it Was Eight Hours Late

February 20, 1996

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Maritime officials today ordered the owners of an aging wooden ferry that capsized in high winds, killing at least 54 people, to explain why it was carrying twice its legal capacity and departed eight hours late.

If the boat had sailed on time Sunday, it would not have had to wait for high tide to dock at the shallow port in Cadiz on Negros Island, 300 miles southeast of Manila.

As it waited, the 75-ton ML Gretchen I was battered by a sudden gale, capsized, broke apart and sank.

``One can say the tragedy may have been avoided had it sailed on time,″ said Maritime Industry Authority spokeswoman Aines Librodo.

Rescuers were still searching today for at least 12 missing passengers. Many of the 54 confirmed fatalities were children.

The ferry was carrying more than 200 people _ more than twice its legal capacity _ from Bantayan Island in Cebu province to Cadiz.

Paciencio Balbon, head of the Maritime Industry Authority, said the ship’s owners, Louie and Clarita Quimco, would be charged with multiple murder if they failed to explain the violations satisfactorily.

The old ship was deteriorating badly and its captain had no formal maritime education, officials said.

One unidentified survivor described the ship’s wooden hull as ``so rotten you could pinch chunks off it,″ the Today newspaper reported.

Rescuers said many more people could have been saved if the accident had occurred one or two hours earlier during daylight. They said the darkness of night contributed to a panic among the passengers and hampered rescue efforts.

Many passengers panicked when the ferry began to sway violently and rushed to one side, causing the boat to capsize.

A coast guard station less than half a mile away was unaware of the accident until a ferry crew member arrived there in a life raft. The station had no radio, no telephone and no rescue vessel of its own. The four coast guard officers on duty borrowed a rowboat, but had to turn back because of the big waves.

Ms. Librodo said maritime inspectors ordered the Gretchen I out of service last week because it was unseaworthy. The boat continued to sail because its sister vessel, Gretchen II, was in drydock for similar repairs and the two ferries are the only ones plying the Bantayan-Cadiz route, she said.

In addition to the rotting wood, the ferry had no public address system and its instruments and engine had never undergone an overhaul, according to newspaper reports.

Ms. Librodo said the ferry was supposed to sail at 9 a.m. from Bantayan so it could reach Cadiz at high tide. But for undisclosed reasons, it sailed at 5 p.m., reaching Cadiz at low tide.

The Cadiz sea accident was the latest in a string of disasters involving overloaded ferries that link the Philippines’ 7,000 islands.

In the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster, 4,341 people died when the overloaded ship Dona Paz collided with a tanker in central Philippine waters in 1987.

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