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Survivor of Philippine ferry sinking rescued after 30 hours adrift

A 39-year-old woman is reunited with family members who survived the sinking of the boat with more than 1,000 aboard after she is spotted by a rescue helicopter. Nine died in the incident.

September 09, 2009|Al Jacinto and John M. Glionna

ZAMBOANGA CITY, PHILIPPINES, AND SEOUL — For 30 long hours, Lita Casumlum bobbed in the churning seas. Buoyed by her life jacket, guzzling seawater, her face scorched by a relentless sun, she forced herself to concentrate on her husband and son as she prayed for her rescue.

Her pleas were answered Monday when a Philippine air force helicopter plucked the 39-year-old homemaker to safety, a day after the SuperFerry 9 sank off Zamboanga del Norte province in the southern Philippines.

Cargo ships, military gunboats and aircraft swarmed the area, pulling all but a few of the roughly 1,000 passengers and crew members to safety. Nine people are confirmed dead; after Casumlum's rescue, one is still missing.

"I just prayed and prayed hard that some ships or fishing boats or the navy would rescue me, but there was none," she said from a hospital bed Tuesday. "No ships until I saw the helicopter."

She was found about 15 nautical miles from where the 7,200-ton ferry sank. Authorities called it a miracle that her orange life vest was spotted bobbing in the water.

Shortly after noon Monday, rescuers aboard two military Huey helicopters and search planes scanned the vast waters. They knew time was running out; few people could survive long in such high seas.

"We knew the current was really strong and the waves were huge, but we continued until we spotted her," said air force Maj. Antonio Mandaue. "She was like a dot in the vast blue ocean."

Philippine television showed dramatic video of a military rescuer, suspended from a cable, reaching down into the water to snatch Casumlum to safety.

The huge SuperFerry 9, built in Japan in 1986, had left the southern Philippine city of General Santos on Saturday, en route to the central city of Iloilo.

Pepito Casumlum, a 40-year-old carpenter from Iloilo province, said he was riding below deck with his wife, their 7-year-old son Christopher and a nephew when they heard a tremendous thud.

The lights flickered and died, only to return and go out again.

"We could hear people screaming and crying, and somebody was shouting to abandon the ship," he said.

With the ferry listing about 35 degrees, officers issued the order to abandon ship about 4:40 a.m. Sunday.

The order sent panicked passengers to the railings, where many began jumping into the dark water. Parents lowered children into life rafts. In the chaos, Lita Casumlum was separated from her family.

"The current was strong and I kept calling my husband's name and my son's, but I was drifting away and away," she said. "I was so tired. The sea was so cold, everything is cold at night, and it was so hot during the day. I was hungry and drank seawater only."

There were moments, she said, when she waited for death.

But the rescue effort was well underway. Within minutes of the call to abandon ship, the coast guard summoned two passing cargo ships as well as military aircraft and gunboats based about 50 miles from where the vessel went down.

A little more than six hours after the call to abandon ship, the ferry sank. Hundreds of survivors were rescued from boats and from the water, including Pepito, his son and nephew.

It wasn't until about 1:15 p.m. Monday, as a rescue helicopter hovered about 500 feet above the water, that a pilot spotted Casumlum and the craft dipped low to pluck her from the sea.

"She was not moving when the chopper brought her in for first aid," said Mandaue, the air force major. "I thought she was dead. She was badly burned by the sun, her face was swollen, and she looked bad."

Then she moved.

"She was trembling and thirsty and hungry, and she could hardly speak because of a sore throat. We gave her first aid and water and a blanket to warm her body," Mandaue said.

Rescuers found two crabs, each about 2 inches long, in Casumlum's pockets. The crabs had cut her legs but she was too cold to feel the pain, officials said.

Encouraged by her rescue, officials said they would continue the hunt for the last person missing from the ferry.

Casumlum was reunited with her husband and son on Tuesday. With an intravenous tube in her arm, she smiled weakly as her family stood by her side.

"It is a miracle that we all survived," Pepito said, his eyes tearing as he held the life jacket that kept his wife afloat.

"Look at her, her face is swollen, her arms are swollen. She is really in pain, but we are also happy because we are all here together."

--

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jacinto is a special correspondent.

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