By Cecil Morella ,AFP

CEBU, Philippines — Stormy weather forced Philippine rescuers to suspend a search Saturday for 171 people missing after a crowded ferry collided with a cargo ship and quickly sank, with 31 others confirmed dead. The St. Thomas Aquinas ferry was carrying 831 passengers and crew when the vessels smashed into each other late on Friday night in a dangerous choke point near the port of Cebu, the Philippines’ second-biggest city, authorities said. Coastguard and military vessels, as well as local fishermen in their own small boats, frantically worked through the night and Saturday morning to haul 629 people out of the water alive. But when bad weather whipped up the ocean mid-afternoon on Saturday, authorities suspended the search with 171 people still unaccounted for.

“It rained hard … with strong winds and rough seas,” navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic told AFP. He also said powerful currents had earlier prevented divers from assessing all of the sunken ferry to determine how many people had died and were trapped inside. Fabic said rescuers had not given up hope that there were other survivors who were still drifting at sea. But Rear Admiral Luis Tuason, vice commandant of the coastguard, said the death toll would almost certainly rise from the 31 bodies that had already been retrieved. “Because of the speed by which it went down, there is a big chance that there are people trapped inside,” he said, adding the ferry sank within 10 minutes of the collision. Pope Francis was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life,” a Vatican statement said, adding he would pray for all affected in the predominantly Catholic country. One survivor, Lolita Gonzaga, 57, recalled the terror of falling from the top deck of the ship to the bottom level when the collision occurred, then the horror of escaping the black waters with her 62-year-old husband. “When we were rescued we had to share the rubber boat with a dead woman. She was just lying there,” Gonzaga told AFP from a hospital bed in Cebu where she was nursing spinal injuries. “We were transferred to the other ship that hit us, but I could not go up the stairs because it was full of dead people. “They were left hanging there. We thought we were going to die. I just held hands with my husband and prayed to God to save us.”