updated 6/27/2008 8:27:31 AM ET 2008-06-27T12:27:31

Philippine officials suspended the retrieval Friday of hundreds of bodies believed trapped inside a sunken ferry due to fears divers may be exposed to toxic chemicals in the cargo hold.

Vice President Noli de Castro told reporters that 22,000 pounds of the pesticide endosulfan intended for pineapple plantations of Del Monte Philippines went down with the ferry when it capsized in a typhoon last Saturday in the central Philippines.

“Because this pesticide is dangerous, we have temporarily aborted the retrieval operations at the ship,” he said.

More than 100 divers, including eight U.S. servicemen, have joined the search.

The pesticide does not dissolve easily in water and could be lethal to humans, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said. He warned against eating fish caught in the area until tests show they have not been contaminated.

Norlito Gicana, executive director of the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority, said four water samples have been taken from the ship and initial test results indicated no contamination.

“With the results of the two samples obtained in the area, it appears negative — we have nothing to be worried about,” he said. “We will still wait for the results of the two (other) samples.”

How many victims?
It remained unclear how many of the 850-plus passengers and crew were trapped when the 23,824-ton Princess of the Stars suddenly listed and went belly up in a half-hour or less during the powerful typhoon, leaving just the tip of the bow jutting from the water.

Only 56 survivors have been found, while 124 bodies have washed ashore or been recovered at sea, coast guard Commander Danilo Avila said.

Typhoon Fengshen also left 505 people dead and 287 missing elsewhere in the country, the National Disaster Coordinating Council said.

Coast guard chief Vice Adm. Wilfredo Tamayo said a salvage company was being consulted on possibly uprighting the seven-story ship to speed up recovery work.

The pesticide was shipped in 400 55-pound boxes inside a steel container, Transportation Undersecretary Maria Elena Bautista said. A team of foreign divers with special chemical resistant suits will examine the cargo and recommend how to haul it out of the ship, she said.

Charges could be filed
The government learned about the pesticide only after Del Monte informed the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority about it, she said.

Bautista said ferry owner Sulpicio Lines violated maritime rules that prohibit carrying toxic or hazardous substances in passenger ships.

De Castro said the government is considering filing charges against Sulpicio.

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