MANILA — A shipping company official challenged a coast guard report that key officers were drinking beer or watching a videotape when a Philippine ferry collided with an oil tanker in the century's worst peacetime sea disaster.
"I cannot believe that," said Carlos Go, manager of the Sulpicio Shipping Lines office in Cebu City, owner of the ferry Dona Paz that was believed to have been carrying more than 1,600 people.
Only 26 people survived the fiery collision Sunday night.
50 More Bodies
Meanwhile, rescuers found 50 more bodies in waters off Mindoro island and the coast guard said Friday that "time and nature" may prevent many of the other victims from ever being recovered.
A coast guard statement said 292 bodies have been recovered from waters near the accident site 110 miles south of Manila.
Commodore Carlito Cunanan, the coast guard commandant, told reporters Thursday that some top officers of the Dona Paz were away from their posts and that an apprentice was alone on the bridge when the 2,215-ton passenger ship and the 629-ton oil tanker Victor collided. Both vessels sank.
A coast guard statement said investigators had been told the ferry's chief mate and third mate were drinking beer and that the captain was watching a videotape just before the 10 p.m. crash.
Coast guard officials said their information was based on interviews with one of the survivors. None of the Dona Paz's 60-member crew survived.
But Go said he doubted the report. "An apprentice has to have an officer with him all the time. We are quite strict with our rules," he said.
Go said company records showed that the second mate was supposed to have been on duty at the bridge at the time of the collision but that the captain, chief mate and third mate were not on watch.
A grim search continued Christmas Day, coast guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Cipriano Luspo said, with at least five Navy and coast guard ships, four commercial vessels and two military helicopters participating.
"The rescuers are fighting against time and nature," said Luspo. "The bodies can only stay afloat for so long. But the searchers are still looking for whatever they can find."
The Board of Marine Inquiry was to begin hearings Monday into the disaster, which President Corazon Aquino called a "national tragedy of harrowing proportion."
Dozens of grieving men and women spent their Christmas in one crowded Manila funeral home, in an attempt to identify relatives killed in the disaster.
"We were supposed to be happy this Christmas. Instead all we have is tears and pain. All we did this Christmas is weep," said Fely Magaluna, 34, who lost her mother, father and brother. "Last night we were going to celebrate Christmas Eve but we couldn't do it. We just ended up crying."
Officials said 62 bodies, all females except for four male children, lay in the Funeraria Popular. Only 27 of them had been identified because most of the bodies were badly burned.
It is still unclear how many people were aboard the Dona Paz. Sulpicio Lines has said ship manifests show that a total of 1,583 passengers boarded the ferry in Tacloban City, where the journey originated, and at an intermediate stop.
Survivors said the ferry was packed with holiday travelers heading for Manila, with up to four people sharing individual cots on deck. Some claimed to have heard crew members say that more than 3,000 people were aboard.
The coast guard earlier said the ferry could have carried 2,200 people, but Cunanan said he thought the number was under 2,000.