Then the scene turned chaotic when the ferry, with 870 passengers and crew, collided with a cargo ship late Friday, ripping a hole in the ferry's hull, knocking out its power and causing it to list before rapidly sinking as people screamed, according to Pestillos and other witnesses.
"The sea was very calm and we could already see the lights at the pier," Pestillos told The Associated Press on Sunday by telephone.
"Then very suddenly ... there was a loud bang, then the grating sound of metal being peeled off," he said.
Coast guard officials said at least 50 died and 70 were missing in the deadly collision 570 kilometers (350 miles) south of Manila. Hampered by a thunderstorm and strong currents, divers temporarily halted their search Monday.
Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for many past accidents at sea in the Phillipines, including in 1987 when the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.
Cebu Gov. Hilario Davide III said 750 passengers and crew of the Thomas Aquinas were rescued. There were no signs of additional survivors late Sunday, though Davide told reporters he had not given up hope.
Pestillos, one of several people praised for saving others in the accident, said he distributed life jackets and launched life rafts before creating his own flotation device by tying three life jackets to his navy service rifle.
As the ferry sank, Pestillos said he fell into water that reeked of oil and was hit by a falling life boat. He said he gave his homemade flotation device to a woman who needed it to stay afloat.
He said he lost sight of her when he went to help seven others, including two toddlers, toward an overturned life boat.
Pestillos said rescuers found his rifle still tied to the life jackets, but it was not clear what happened to the woman.
"I'm really praying that she also made it to the shore alive," he said.
Cebu coast guard chief Commodore William Melad said records of hospitals, rescuers and the ferry owner indicate that 754 passengers and 116 crew were aboard the ferry when the accident occurred.
Coast guard deputy chief Rear Adm. Luis Tuason said some of the missing could still be trapped in the sunken ferry, which has been leaking oil.
Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya said the cargo ship was leaving the Cebu pier when it smashed into the ferry's right side near the rear. He said the ferry was arriving from southern Agusan del Sur province and making a brief stop in Cebu before proceeding to Manila.
Outbound and incoming ships are assigned separate routes in the narrow channel leading to the busy Cebu pier. It is not known if one of the vessels strayed into the wrong lane, coast guard officials said.
"There was probably a non-observance of rules," Melad told reporters in Cebu on Sunday, but he said the investigation will start after the search and rescue work ends.