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BLAZE STARTED IN ENGINE ROOM, COAST GUARD REPORT SAYS

7 dead as ferry catches fire near Quezon port

Burning ferry Mercraft 2 as it headed for Real in Quezon. STORY: 7 dead as ferry catches fire near Quezon port

This handout photo taken and released on May 23, 2022, from the Philippine Coast Guard shows people throwing buckets of water onto a smouldering ferry which had caught fire near Real town, Quezon province. (Photo from the Philippine Coast Guard)

LUCENA CITY, Quezon, Philippines — Polillo Island residents Shirley Debelles, her husband Crisanto and their young grandchild were on their way to Real town in Quezon province on board the MV Mercraft 2 on Monday morning when disaster struck.

The port of Real was already in sight and the one-and-a-half hour ride to the mainland almost over when flames quickly engulfed the passenger ferry.

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“I noticed that the blaze started at the back where we were seated, which was near the engine. When we saw the fire, we all ran away, but we got separated from each other,” Shirley told reporters.

She and her grandchild survived the inferno that swept through the ferry, but not Crisanto.

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“A small boat rescued me and some other passengers. I also saw my grandchild getting rescued by emergency responders. But when I saw my husband, he was already dead,” Shirley said, sobbing.

Before they were rescued, they tried to stay afloat in the waters for more than an hour, she recalled, adding that she would take her husband’s body back to Polillo.

MV Mercraft 2, which had a capacity of 186 passengers, was bound for the port of Real after leaving Polillo Island around 5 a.m. when a fire reportedly broke out in the engine room, said the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

The ship made a distress call at 6:30 a.m. to the PCG which mounted a rescue operation, together with two roll-on, roll-off vessels and four motorized banca in the area.

Of the 134 passengers and crew of MV Mercraft 2, seven died while 24 others were hurt, including the captain, John Lerry Escareces, who was among those taken to Claro M. Recto Memorial District Hospital in Infanta town.

Aside from Crisanto Debelles, the fatalities were identified by the Quezon police as Viola Impreso, 47; Marivic Samareta, 61; Edna Balanac, 64; Mina Enciso, 57; Escareces’ mother, Charito Escareces, 57; and Andy Tejares, 54.

Except for Enciso, the fatalities were from Polillo Island, the municipal disaster risk reduction and management office said.

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Panic

Wally Tejares, 68, who sustained burns on his back and arms, said most of the passengers panicked when they saw the fire spreading fast.

“We were at the center of the ferry and I heard people screaming for help. The black smoke grew thicker and I felt a burning pain on my back, so I jumped into the water,” he said.

Tejares said they tried to stay afloat in the water for 10 minutes until rescuers arrived.

INFERNO Some passengers of MV Mercraft 2 jump into the sea to escape the fire that hit the ferry in Real, Quezon, on Monday. STORY: At least seven people were killed and scores plucked to safety in the Philippines on May 23 after a fire ripped through a ferry and forced passengers to jump overboard, coast guard and witnesses said. (Photo by Handout / Philippine Coastguard / AFP)

INFERNO | Some passengers of MV Mercraft 2 jump into the sea to escape the fire that hit the ferry in Real, Quezon, on Monday. (Photo from the Philippine Coast Guard)

“I am going to Real to seek medical treatment so I took the early trip so I could go back early but, unfortunately, the incident happened,” he said.

“We heard an explosion,” said Kycel Pineda, who was traveling on another ferry. “When we saw the boat, it was already engulfed by fire and passengers were already floating in the sea.”

“We were able to rescue 40… We have two fatalities,” said Brunette Azagra, the captain of another passenger vessel that was 500 meters away from Mercraft 2 when the fire broke out.

“They were lucky because we also came from Polillo. They overtook us, but we were just nearby,” Azagra told a radio station, describing sea conditions as “quite good.”

Filomena Portales, Real town municipal administrator and incident command post spokesperson, said that most of the injured were transferred to Quezon Medical Center in Lucena City, the province’s capital, from Infanta town, where they were initially treated.

Passengers accounted for

Police Maj. Gen. Rhoderick Armamento, Southern Luzon area police commander, said there were no more missing passengers.

“All have been accounted for,” he told the Inquirer.

PCG spokesperson Commodore Armando Balilo said the fire appeared to have started in the engine room and a team of investigators was preparing to look into the cause.

MV Triple Kent towed the charred wreckage of the ferry to Baluti Island at Barangay Cawayan in Real town after the fire was placed under control at 9:30 a.m.

Mercraft Shipping, which owns MV Mercraft 2, has yet to issue a statement on the incident.

In 2017, another vessel owned by the company, MV Mercraft 3, that was carrying 250 passengers sank between the waters off Dinahican in Infanta and Polillo Island, leaving five dead.

According to a report by the Maritime Industry Authority, the PCG had allowed the vessel to sail despite bad weather, which caused it to collide with a “metal fishing buoy.” It started taking in water and then sank.

In April, cargo ship MV General Romulo was also hit by fire, leaving one dead and three others injured. The fire started while the vessel was anchored off Talisay City, waiting for clearance to dock at Cebu City port.

—WITH REPORTS FROM JANE BAUTISTA, INQUIRER RESEARCH AND AFP

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