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Death toll reaches 50 in ferry crash

Photos of missing passengers of the Thomas Aquinas ferry were posted outside the shipping terminal office in Cebu.

Dennis M. Sabangan/EPA

Photos of missing passengers of the Thomas Aquinas ferry were posted outside the shipping terminal office in Cebu.

CEBU, Philippines — As the Thomas Aquinas ferry cruised toward Cebu city in the central Philippines, navy marshal Richard Pestillos prepared for a brief stop while some passengers watched a band and others soaked in the night breeze on the deck.

Then the scene turned chaotic when the ferry, with 870 passengers and crew, and a cargo ship collided late Friday, ripping a hole in its hull, knocking out its power, and causing it to list before rapidly sinking as people screamed, according to Pestillos and other witnesses.

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‘‘The sea was very calm and we could already see the lights at the pier,’’ Pestillos said Sunday by telephone.

‘‘Then very suddenly . . . there was a loud bang then the grating sound of metal being peeled off,’’ he said.

Coast Guard officials said at least 50 died and more than 70 were missing in the latest deadly sea accident in the Philippines.

Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels, and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for many of the accidents, including in 1987 when the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Governor Hilario Davide III of Cebu said 751 passengers and crew of the Thomas Aquinas were rescued. There were no signs of additional survivors late Sunday. Coast guard officials said a thunderstorm and strong currents halted the search Monday.

Pestillos, one of several people praised for saving others in the accident, said he distributed life jackets and launched life rafts before creating his own flotation device by tying life jackets to his navy service rifle.

Coast Guard Deputy Chief Rear Admiral Luis Tuason said some of the missing could still be trapped in the sunken ferry, which has been leaking oil.

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