MANILA, March 6, 2004 (STAR) Search teams located seven more bodies yesterday in a ferry that caught fire in Manila Bay last week, while an official refused to rule out terrorism despite doubts over Muslim militants’ claim of responsibility.

Rescue workers have recovered 17 bodies since the SuperFerry 14 caught fire on Feb. 27 with 899 people aboard, and continued to comb the half-submerged wreckage for the 118 still missing. Investigators have searched about 80 percent of the ship.

Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Commodore Wilfredo Tamayo said the doors of the tourist cabin where the seven bodies were located were blocked by debris, and search teams were waiting for heavy equipment to help them lift the remains.

"We have seen the bodies but we cannot get them out yet," said Tamayo who was at the site supervising the retrieval operations.

"We have now searched 75 percent of the ship," Tamayo told The STAR. "The remaining 25 percent is where most of the debris are. If we recovered these many bodies already you can just imagine how many more are trapped under."

PCG divers found three bodies last Wednesday after equipment were brought in to remove some of the debris. Six more were retrieved last Thursday when the bodies floated after being freed from the debris.

There was initially only one body recovered from the ship, who to this day remains unidentified.

Officials have played down a claim by the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group that it put a suicide bomber on the ship. The coast guard has confirmed that a man identified by the Abu Sayyaf as the bomber was among the missing, but cautioned that anyone could make such a claim.

Oscar Sevilla, Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) administrator, said there was still a possibility that a bomb in the economy section, which has not been reached by divers yet, could have triggered the fire.

"From the testimony of the witnesses, the passengers who survived, they said the blast came from that area," Sevilla told ABS-CBN television.

But Tamayo said the investigation is yet to determine whether the explosion occurred before or after the fire broke out.

He said the ship’s security officials told him that no equipment or chemicals were on board that could have accidentally exploded.

A special marine board of inquiry into the incident is scheduled to convene next week.

Gina Virtusio, corporate communications manager of SuperFerry owner WG&A, said that out of the remaining unaccounted passengers, 93 were confirmed missing by their respective families.

Tamayo said the problem in retrieving the bodies is mainly how to bring them out as the only way in or out of the submerged portion of the ship is through the top, as all possible entrances are heavily covered with debris.

The PCG official said their last option is to cut through the ship to access the areas where many bodies are believed to be trapped, but in the process reduce much of the salvage value of the vessel now lying on its starboard side in Mariveles, Bataan.

"We will leave it to the owners and the relatives to arrive at an agreement on that aspect. But we will go ahead with our retrieval operations," Tamayo said.

A fresh batch of divers is expected to work on the site through the weekend replacing the 25 currently working on two shifts of four hours per dive operation.

Meanwhile, Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza said that WG&A as well as government regulatory agencies Marina and the PCG could be held liable for the SuperFerry 14 tragedy.

Mendoza said the Board of Marine Inquiry looking into the Feb. 27 ship fire will consider the angles of "safety, security and liability."

He said faulty mechanical systems or lapses in safety procedures were being eyed as the cause of the explosion that triggered the fire.

He also ruled out sabotage. "If it was caused by explosives, there will be traces."— Jose Aravilla, Rainier Allan Ronda

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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