Stunned passengers were forced to jump in the dark into the water after the captain ordered the doomed ferry abandoned.
Coast guard, navy and fishing vessels, backed by helicopters, scoured the choppy seas off Talisay city in Cebu, about 570 kilometers (350 miles) south of Manila, Sunday but found no sign of any more survivors. Divers, however, retrieved the bodies of a man and a woman in the ferry, which sank in waters about 33 meters (100 feet) deep.
"We're still on a rescue mission," Davide told reporters. "We have not given up on them."
Relatives flocked to a ticketing office of ferry owner, 2GO Group Inc., and pasted pictures of their missing loved ones. Others, like Richard Ortiz, waited quietly and stared blankly at the vast sea from the Talisay pier, where coast guard and navy rescuers have encamped.
"I just want to see my parents," said Ortiz, who clutched a picture of his father and mother. "This is so difficult."
Amid initial confusion over the number of ferry passengers and the missing, Cebu coast guard chief Commodore William Melad said authorities reported that there were 870 people on board the ferry, including 754 passengers and 116 crewmen. The more than 30 crewmen of the MV Sulpicio Express Siete cargo ship, which had a huge gaping hole in its bow, were all safe, officials said.
Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Abaya said Saturday there were foreigners among the ferry passengers and all were fine, except for a New Zealand citizen who was brought to a hospital.
Coast guard deputy chief Rear Adm. Luis Tuason said some of the missing could still be trapped in the sunken ferry, which has been leaking oil.
In a statement, 2GO said the ferry "was reportedly hit" by the cargo vessel "resulting in major damage that led to its sinking." An investigation will begin after the rescue operation, the coast guard said.
Abaya said the cargo vessel, which was leaving the Cebu pier, smashed into right side near the rear of the ferry which was coming in from Nasipit in Agusan del Sur province in the southern Philippines and making a short stop in Cebu before proceeding to Manila.
Outbound and incoming ships are assigned separate routes in the narrow passage leading to the busy Cebu pier and an investigation would determine if one of the vessels strayed into the wrong route and sparked the accident, which happened in relatively calm weather, coast guard officials said.
"There was probably a non-observance of rules," Melad told a news conference in Cebu on Sunday, suggesting human error may have been a factor in the accident. He stressed, however, only an investigation that would start after the search and rescue mission, would show what really happened.
One of the survivors, Jenalyn Labanos, 31, said the ferry quickly tilted to its side after the impact and sank about 20 minutes later.
She said the crash threw her and two companions to the floor of a ship restaurant followed by the lights going out.
"People panicked and the crew later handed out life vests and used their flashlights to guide us out of the ship but they could not control the passengers because the ship was already tilting," said Labanos, who was bruised as she grabbed a rope on the side of the vessel before jumping into the water.
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.