MANILA, Philippines — A ferry carrying 189 passengers and crew capsized Thursday minutes after it left a central Philippine port in choppy waters, leaving at least 36 dead and 26 others missing, coast guard officials said.
They said at least 127 people from the M/B Kim Nirvana were rescued by nearby fishing boats and coast guard personnel or swam to safety off Ormoc city on Leyte Island.
Coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said the wooden outrigger ferry was leaving Ormoc for the Camotes Islands, about 44 kilometers (27 miles) to the south, when it was lashed by strong waves.
He said the captain and some of the crew were rescued and are in custody pending an investigation.
Survivors told The Associated Press by cellphone that the bow of the ferry suddenly rose from the water before the vessel flipped over on one side, turning it upside down and trapping passengers underneath.
Mary Jane Drake, who was traveling with her mother and American husband, said the ferry was pulling slowly out of the port when it suddenly flipped to the left in strong waves and overturned. She, her mother and husband swam to safety from underneath the ferry.
"No one was able to jump out because it overturned very swiftly. There was no time to jump," she said.
Her husband, Lawrence Drake, a 48-year-old retired firefighter from Rochester, New York, said he ran to one side of the boat to try to balance it but it was too late.
"I jumped out of my seat and ran to the front as far as I could, and tried to lean over. I am a big guy, and tried to push the boat back over but it was way too late," he said.
Many of the passengers were screaming in panic, he said.
TV footage showed coast guard rescuers and army soldiers carrying survivors from rubber boats to a beach. Not far away, the bottom part of the vessel could be seen protruding from the water.
A rescue leader, Ciriaco Tolibao, said several army frogmen and coast guard divers were searching the overturned boat in a race with time to find more survivors or retrieve bodies.
Coast guard officials and survivors said it wasn't immediately clear what caused the 36-ton ferry boat, which was carrying a heavy cargo of construction materials and bags of rice, to overturn as it moved from the port toward Ormoc Bay.
Cloudy weather at the time of the accident did not pose any danger that would have prompted the coast guard to stop sea voyages, the coast guard said.
A brewing storm in the Pacific was 550 kilometers (344 miles) east of Ormoc and was too far away to affect any part of the Philippine archipelago, according to forecasters. They said winds in the Ormoc region were not strong enough to whip up dangerous waves.
Ormoc, a regional economic and transportation hub of about 200,000 people, is located in a disaster-prone eastern region that is regularly hit by some of the approximately 20 tropical storms and typhoons that blow in from the Pacific each year.
The city was among those devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most ferocious storms on record to hit land, which left more than 7,300 dead and missing and leveled entire villages in November 2013.
In 1991, a storm set off flash floods in the Ormoc region that killed more than 5,000 people and swept homes and vehicles into the sea.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.