Philippines typhoon death toll tops 900; 35 fishermen rescued at sea

Police search around toppled tree trunks caused by the powerful Typhoon Bopha in New Bataan, Philippines, Dec. 10, 2012, in this handout picture released by the Philippine National Police.
AP Photo/Philippine National Police

MANILA, Philippines Low-flying search planes spotted three Filipino fishermen drifting at sea and flashing mirrors to signal for help, as authorities stepped up the search for 261 other fishermen missing more than a week after a typhoon killed hundreds in the southern Philippines. CBS News' Barnaby Lo reports the government raised the storm's official death toll on Thursday to 906, and said the search was continuing for 932 people still listed as missing.

Indonesia sent a ship to join the search for the fishermen, who may have been swept toward the Celebes Sea from the Pacific Ocean off southern Mindanao Island, said regional military spokesman Capt. Severino David.

A total of 35 fishermen have been rescued in the past three days, including three found Tuesday in a small boat drifting about 158 miles east of Davao Oriental province, where the typhoon made landfall Dec. 4, David said Wednesday.

Low-flying search planes spotted them and gave their locations to rescue ships. Although weak and dehydrated, some were still able to signal to the planes using mirrors, David said.

"The typhoon caught up with them, and they may have lost their way and ran out of fuel," he said.

The more than 300 tuna fishermen were about 120 nautical miles east of Davao Oriental province as early as October. Typhoon Bopha's top winds of 131 miles per hour apparently made it difficult for them to return to shore.

Rescuers recovered at least four bodies from the sea and continued to find remains buried under mud and rubble in the worst-hit farming province of Compostela Valley and in flood-ravaged coastal towns.

Regional coast guard Commodore George Ursabia said most of the missing fishermen worked for companies based in southern General Santos City, known as the tuna capital of the Philippines. They sailed to fishing grounds in October after a fishing ban was lifted Sept. 30.

"I am still hoping that they are still alive," said Civil Defense chief Benito Ramos, citing the experience of a group of fishermen who survived in rough seas in the northern Philippines for 21 days following another storm.

He said at least some of the missing fishermen may have taken shelter in islands in the Celebes Sea.

The typhoon knocked out power, destroyed houses, uprooted trees and set off flash floods that washed away roads and bridges and entire communities.

Hundreds of thousands were left homeless, and the Philippine government launched a massive relief effort. The U.N. has appealed to donors for $65 million in emergency humanitarian assistance.