MANILA, Philippines -- A ferry with more than 800 people aboard sank near the central Philippine port of Cebu after colliding with a cargo vessel, killing at least 24 people. Hundreds of others were rescued, the coast guard said Saturday.
Dozens were still missing, but authorities could not give an official figure.
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The captain of the ferry MV Thomas Aquinas ordered the ship abandoned after it began listing and then sank after the collision late Friday, coast guard officer Joy Villegas said.
Cebu coast guard chief, Cmdr. Weniel Azcuna, said 24 people, including children, were confirmed dead and 629 passengers had been rescued by early Saturday.
Speaking by telephone from Cebu, Azcuna said they were still searching the waters for survivors. He also said authorities were still trying to determine the actual number of people on board.
In a statement, ferry owner 2Go said the roll-on-roll-off ship had 723 passengers and 118 crew or a total of 841 people aboard and carried 104 20-foot steel containers.
It said the ferry "was reportedly hit" by the cargo vessel "resulting in major damage that led to its sinking."
Azcuna said the coast guard was still focused on rescue off Cebu, 350 miles south of Manila, and will begin investigations later.
Navy divers told reporters at the scene of the collision, about 2 kilometers from the shore, that they saw several dead bodies still underwater.
Danny Palmero, a former fisherman, said he was with friends who responded to the ferry's distress call and rescued seven people on their motorized outrigger canoe.
"I saw many flares being shot," he said by telephone. "As a former nautical student, I knew it was a distress signal."
He said a fisherman arrived at the shore later with three survivors and told the crowd gathered that there was a collision and that there were many people in the water.
"We just picked up the survivors and left the dead in the water," he said. "I heard screams and crying."
The crew of the cargo ship was throwing life jackets to the people who jumped into the dark waters.
He said there is a large gash at the front of the cargo vessel. "It now has a mouth," he said, describing the ship's bow.
Two coast guard vessels and other nearby ships were involved in the rescue operation.
Hundreds of passengers jumped into the ocean as the ship started to sink, according to survivors. Many of the passengers were asleep and others struggled to find their way in the dark.
Jerwin Agudong said he and other passengers jumped overboard in front of the cargo vessel after the ferry began taking on water and the crew distributed life jackets.
He told radio station DZBB that some people were trapped and he saw bodies in the water.
"It seems some were not able to get out. I pity the children. We saw dead bodies on the side, and some being rescued," he said.
He said the ferry was entering the pier when the cargo vessel, which was on the way out, suddenly collided with it.
"One of the persons who jumped with us hit his head on metal. He is shaking and he is bloodied," Agudong said.
The 455-foot ferry sank in about 30 minutes, he said.
The youngest among those rescued was an 11-month baby, news reports said.
The ferry came from Nasipit in Agusan del Sur province in the southern Philippines on a daylong journey, Agudong said.
Accidents at sea are common in the Philippine archipelago because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats and weak enforcement of safety regulations.
In 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.
In 2008, the ferry MV Princess of the Stars capsized during a typhoon in the central Philippines, killing nearly 800 people.