Then the scene turned chaotic when the ferry, with 870 passengers and crew, and a cargo ship collided late Friday, ripping a hole in its 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 39 died and more than 80 were missing in the latest deadly sea accident in the Philippines, which happened 570 kilometers (350 miles) south of Manila.
Frequent storms, badly maintained vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations have been blamed for many of the accidents, including in 1987 when the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,341 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.
Cebu Governor Hilario Davide III said 751 passengers and crew of the Thomas Aquinas were rescued. There were no signs of additional survivors late Sunday, although Davide told reporters that 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 there were 870 people on the ferry, including 754 passengers and 116 crew, after collating records of hospitals, rescuers and the ferry owner.
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 right side near the rear of the ferry which 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 a news conference in Cebu on Sunday, but he said the investigation will start after the search and rescue work ends.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Joeal Calupitan, Oliver Teves, Teresa Cerojano and Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.