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Divers Get Bodies from Capsized Philippine Ferry

SAN FERNANDO, Philippines -- Bodies in life jackets washed up on islands and drifted at sea Wednesday as more than 100 divers probed deeper inside a Philippine ferry that capsized during a powerful typhoon.

While the divers have only found bodies so far, officials were not willing to give up hope of finding more survivors among the more than 800 people missing since the seven-story ferry listed and went down in a half-hour or less Saturday.

"There is a slim chance that we can still find survivors" inside the ferry, coast guard Lt. Cmdr Rogelio Villanueva said. "As the days pass, indeed the chance is getting slimmer."

Transportation Undersecretary Maria Elena Bautista said she was still hoping for "a miraculous air pocket somewhere in the ship." She said 95 Filipino and eight American divers were taking part in the search.

The disaster could raise the storm's death toll in the typhoon-prone country to more than 1,300, with 329 people confirmed dead from flooding and landslides and more than 200 missing.

Typhoon Fengshen, downgraded to a tropical storm, made landfall Wednesday morning in Hong Kong and southeast China, which is still struggling to recover from flooding earlier this month.

Only four dozen ferry survivors have been found so far. Three more bodies wearing life vests believed to be from the ship washed up Wednesday on Burias island, 55 miles away, while ships were dispatched to pick up groups of up to 55 bodies spotted by surveillance aircraft.

Just the tip of the bow of the 23,824-ton Princess of the Stars was jutting from the water. The storm's aftermath had kept rescue workers away until calm, sunny conditions Tuesday allowed some of the 35 divers to slither inside for the first time.

Coast guard Lt. Cmdr Inocencio Rosario said he dove to examine the rear end of the ship and found it resting and stable on the seabed 120 feet underwater. Officials had feared that it could slip deeper into the water.

Four U.S. Navy rubber boats with eight American divers went to the site Wednesday morning. Five ships, a P3 surveillance plane, two Navy HH-60 helicopters and a pilotless surveillance plane also were deployed by the U.S. military to help search for bodies and possible survivors.

Bautista said Sulpicio Lines, owner of the vessel, will siphon off the estimated 71,300 gallons of the ferry's special fuel oil _ a mix of bunker oil and diesel.

A distraught man whose cousin and niece were among the missing climbed a tower at the Philippine Ports Authority compound in Manila, carrying a placard demanding that the ferry's owner take relatives to the ferry site or where the bodies were being taken, as other relatives have sought. He was persuaded to come down.

Relatives have questioned why the ship was allowed to leave Manila late Friday for a 20-hour trip to Cebu with a typhoon approaching.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on a trip to the U.S., ordered a thorough probe, assured that anyone found responsible would be held accountable and said she hoped to find ways to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Sulpicio Lines said the ferry sailed with coast guard approval.

Debate began anew on safe-sailing rules in a country prone to storms _ Fengshen was the seventh typhoon this year _ and dependent on ferries to get around the sprawling archipelago.

Associated Press Writers Teresa Cerojano and Oliver Teves in Manila contributed to this report.

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