3 dead in ferry fire; help came 3 hours later
Help arrived three hours after a fire engulfed a cargo and passenger ferry late Tuesday night while sailing from Samboan, Cebu province, to Dapitan City in Zamboanga del Norte province.
Three people, including a baby, were killed.
Two of the bodies were reportedly found in Dapitan’s coastal village of Guimputlan, according to Dr. Rolito Cataluña, city health officer.
Fire broke out near the engine room of Lite Ferry 16 about 3 kilometers off the Pulauan Port in Dapitan, according to Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)-Dapitan chief Cherry Rose Manaay. The incident happened 30 minutes before the boat was expected to arrive at the port at 1 a.m.
Authorities took five hours to put out the blaze, according to a statement issued by Danilo Lines Inc., operator of the 991-ton ferry.
To escape the inferno, the passengers and crew jumped off the boat into the cold water.
So far, 245 passengers and 23 crew members had been rescued by the Coast Guard, private vessels and fishing boats, Maanay said. The official manifest listed 172 passengers and crew.
It was not clear how many were on board. The Lite Ferry 16 can carry up to 317 passengers.
Wilfredo Castro, 30, a former radio broadcaster of Brigada News FM in Kidapawan City, said passengers noticed smoke coming from below the deck, where the engine was located.
Castro, who spoke to the Inquirer by phone, recalled that the passengers had called the attention of the crew and inquired about the smoke, but they were advised to stay put.
By that time, crew members where already in panic, he said. Several of them rushed to the engine room but thick smoke made it difficult for them to go down, he added.
“There was no explosion. We saw thick smoke and then fire. I was just observing since I am located at the rear part of the boat,” Castro said.
By midnight, flames were coming out of the engine room, prompting many passengers and crew members to jump off the vessel.
Emmie Bara, the wife of one of the passengers, said that when her husband, Roger, called her up to tell her that the vessel was on fire, she could “hear people panicking, explosion and people shouting, ‘Jump! Jump!’”
Woman, children jump off
Roger was the driver of one of the buses on board the ferry, said Bara, who was interviewed over Cebu City-based radio station dyLA.
Castro said he first saw a woman jump off with children, followed by other passengers.
“We just observed and listened constantly from the remaining crew members. I was told that they already aired their call for help,” he narrated.
He said one crew member informed him that Coast Guard personnel were coming to help and that he discouraged him from jumping off because the water was bitingly cold.
Soon, passengers were grabbing life vests, Castro said.
In a video he posted on social media, Castro said help arrived three hours after the fire broke out.
He himself jumped off from the burning vessel around 5 a.m. after a Dumaguete-bound Fast Cat boat went out to rescue them. The boat left Dapitan an hour earlier and was the first to respond to the distress call sent by the Lite Ferry 16.
Other vessels, like the MV Danica Joy, and fishermen from Selinog Island, which is part of Dapitan, also rushed to the scene to rescue the passengers.
Allan Barredo, a passenger of the Fast Cat, said the ferry was already on fire, including the vehicles on board, when they arrived.
At least 30 passengers wearing life vests were huddled at the rear—the only portion that had not yet caught fire.
The Dapitan City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office identified the fatalities as Chloe Labisig, 18 months, of Sibutad, Zamboanga del Norte; Danilo Gomez Sr., 60, of Zamboanga City; and Ronaldo Heneral, 65, of Sirawai, Zamboanga del Norte.
They apparently died from suffocation as they did not suffer any burns, Manaay said.
The management of Lite Ferry 16 said each passenger would receive at least P10,000 in cash assistance.
Some passengers were brought to the hospital for medical checkup while others were accommodated in hotels in Dipolog, said Fernando Inting, Lite Ferry Holdings Corp. chief operating officer, in a press conference in Cebu City.
Both Inting and Jonathan Imboy, Lite Ferry vice president for operations, said they had yet to determine the cause of the fire.
Inting said the vessel was 21 years old when Lite Ferry acquired it in 2015.
At least seven crew members were on the vessel when it was being towed by two tugboats back to Cebu City.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is plagued by poor sea transport, with badly regulated boats and ships prone to overcrowding and accidents.
Some 30 years ago, another ferry, the MV Doña Paz, collided with an oil tanker in an accident that claimed more than 4,000 lives in the world’s worst peacetime disaster at sea.
—With reports from Dale Israel, Ador Vincent Mayol and AFP