A fire broke out on a ferry in the southern Philippines and raged overnight for eight hours, killing at least 31 of the approximately 250 passengers and crew, officials said Thursday.
Many of the more than 200 people who survived the blaze jumped off the MV Lady Mary Joy 3 and were rescued from the dark sea by the coast guard, navy, a nearby ferry and local fishermen, said Gov. Jim Hataman of the southern island province of Basilan. Rescuers were still searching Thursday for at least seven missing people, he said.
Hataman said the burned ferry was towed to Basilan’s shoreline, where the bodies of 18 of the 31 victims were discovered in a budget section of the passenger cabin.
“These victims perished on board due to the fire,” Hataman said by telephone. He said more people may have been on the ferry who were not listed on its manifest.
The ferry’s skipper, however, told coast guard officials that he tried to run the burning ferry aground on the nearest shore to allow more people to survive or be rescued, regional coast guard commander Rejard Marfe said. The fire raged for about eight hours, he said.
Investigators have yet to identify the cause of the fire that started at about 11pm off the southern island of Basilan, when many passengers were asleep in air-conditioned cabins on the ferry's lower deck.
"I thought I was dreaming but when I opened my eyes it was dark and we were surrounded by smoke," Mina Nani, 46, a passenger on the MV Lady Mary Joy 3, told DZRH radio.
She said she survived by jumping off the vessel and sharing a floatation device with another passenger until they were rescued.
There were conflicting figures for the number of people on the ferry, which officials said was not overloaded. The coast guard said 225 people, including 36 crew, were rescued.
Eleven people, including three children, drowned after jumping off the burning ship, while 18 died in the blaze on board, Governor Hadjiman Hataman Salliman told DZRH.
"We have yet to explore the entire ship because it's still hot," Salliman said of the beached vessel.
Commodore Rejard Marfe, coast guard chief in the Mindanao region, told Reuters there was "chaos" after the spreading fire roused people from their sleep and the 18 victims found onboard were "totally burnt".
It was not clear how the fire started. Survivors were taken to Zamboanga and Basilan where the injured received treatment for burns.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, has a poor record for maritime safety, with vessels often overcrowded and many ageing ships in use.
In May, at least seven people died in a fire on a high-speed ferry carrying 134 people.
In 1987, about 5,000 people died in the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster, when an overloaded passenger ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker off Mindoro island south of the capital, Manila
Photos released by the coast guard showed one of its vessels spraying water on the burning ferry as its personnel in smaller boats plucked passengers from the dark waters.
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