MANILA -- The Philippine Coast Guard said today that an apprentice was operating the Dona Paz when the passenger ferry, believed to have been carrying more than 1,600 people, collided with an oil tanker and sank.
The Coast Guard said the ferry's chief mate and third mate were drinking beer, and the captain was watching a video shortly before the 10 p.m. collision Sunday. Investigators obtained the information from interviews with survivors, the Coast Guard said.
Only 26 survived, all but two of them from the ferry, crowded with poor people from other islands traveling to Manila for Christmas. The Coast Guard said 242 bodies have been recovered so far.
"We have received some disturbing news from our initial investigation, which shows that some of the ship's officers were not in their places of duty when the incident happened," Coast Guard Commodore Carlito Cunanan said.
The Coast Guard issued a statement saying investigators had received reports that the three top officers had turned the ship's operation over to an apprentice mate who was alone on the bridge at the time of the collision.
None of the Dona Paz crew was among those so far rescued.
A policeman on Mindoro, meanwhile, said a 4-year-old boy found floating on a piece of timber Tuesday was not from the ferry, as speculated by government radio operators earlier. Tech. Sgt. Victor Yap said by radio-telephone from Pinamalaya that the boy was hurt during an outing with his father, who put him on a piece of wood to float him to shore. Yap attributed the reporting error to "confusion."
The Board of Marine Inquiry was scheduled to begin hearings into the disaster on Monday.