ZAMBOANGA CITY — At least 29 people died and 17 others were reported missing after a fire swept through the ferry MV Lady Mary Joy 3 and turned it into a raging inferno as it was passing near an island off Basilan province on its way to Sulu close to midnight on Wednesday, officials said.
By Thursday afternoon, 11 were reported to have drowned and 18 others, including three children, were burned to death in the lower deck. The charred remains were recovered by Philippine Coast Guard personnel, according to Basilan Gov. Jim Hataman-Salliman.
Five of the burnt bodies were found later in the day, Basilan provincial information officer Richard Falcatan told the Inquirer.
The ferry owned by Aleson Shipping Lines left the port of Zamboanga at 9 p.m. with 205 passengers and 35 crew members on the manifest, a number that later proved to be smaller than those who actually boarded the vessel.
READ: Death toll from vessel fire off Basilan now 26
Christopher Domingo, commander of the Zamboanga Coast Guard station, said they received a distress call from the boat captain around 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, prompting him to dispatch three vessels for a rescue operation.
He said that the fire was initially reported to have come from an air-conditioned room on the first deck and then spread to the kitchen.
When the coast guard arrived at the scene off Baluk-Baluk Island, which is part of Hadji Muhtamad town, local fishermen were already helping rescue those who had jumped into the dark water and the crew had already mounted life rafts to evacuate the passengers.
A picture released by the coast guard showed one of its vessels trying to put out the blaze with its water cannon.
Mariebeth Julkani, who was traveling with four family members, recalled being roused from sleep by a commotion at the lower deck.
“We thought at first there were passengers arguing, but when my husband checked, people there were already in panic and told him the boat was on fire,” Julkani said.
“We immediately rushed to one end of the boat because the fire was getting bigger. We were advised by the coast guard not to panic and not to jump off from the boat, but when we saw one of the crew throw a life raft, we immediately jumped toward it,” she added.
They were fished out of the water by the coast guard. Her mother-in-law sustained a neck injury while her husband injured his feet.
READ: After fatal Basilan vessel fire, Poe renews push for PH transport safety board
Julkani said it was easier for them to escape the blaze as they were in the economy section on the second deck unlike those in the lower decks where first-class cabins were located.
Rodrigo Alma Jr., 67, a balloon vendor from Davao City, remembered waking up around midnight because he was having difficulty breathing, only to find out that the deck where he was sleeping was already engulfed in thick smoke.
“I panicked and called for help, but passengers were already running, shouting and panicking. I looked for a life jacket and when I saw one, grabbed it and jumped off the boat,” Alma said.
He said those who were unable to get out of the ferry were in the lower air-conditioned decks.
Hadji Muhtamad Mayor Arsina Nanoh said villagers of Baluk-Baluk alerted them about the fire which raged until around 3 a.m.
Coast Guard Commodore Rejard Marfe told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the skipper ran the ferry aground on the island as the fire spread “so many more could survive since it would be easier to swim to shore.”
Soldiers on board
On Thursday morning, the Coast Guard counted 189 survivors who were brought back to Zamboanga port while Basilan’s provincial disaster risk reduction and management office (PDRRMO) listed 64 passengers who were waiting to be transported to the city. With 243 people rescued, plus the number of dead and missing, the total would be more than those on the manifest.
“We cannot say if everyone is accounted for. The boat manifest only showed 205 passengers, but during the rescue there were more than what was listed in the manifest,” Domingo said.
Salliman said there could be more people missing because the number of passengers on the vessel exceeded those on the manifest.
Marfe said four members of the Coast Guard and an unknown number of soldiers were also on board the vessel but not listed on the manifest.
“We’re still getting the data in Coast Guard Station Zamboanga because that’s where they originated in order to determine if there are still missing people,” he said.
Rear Adm. Donn Anthony Miraflor, commander of Naval Forces Western Mindanao, said the Navy rescued 54 of the passengers on Wednesday night and brought them to the Camp Navarro General Hospital of the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City.
Other survivors who needed medical assistance were taken to the Zamboanga City Medical Center.
Some of those rescued are temporarily sheltered at the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) compound in Zamboanga City. According to DSWD-9 spokesperson Ivan Eric Salvador, 26 individuals are currently staying at the compound and had been given P5,000 in cash assistance.
In addition to Sulu residents who were heading home, some of passengers were soldiers who were reporting for duty in the province.
Zamboanga City Rep. Khymer Adan Olaso, whose wife’s family owns Aleson Shipping, said they were doing an internal probe of the fire and hoped that it was not caused by sabotage.
SuperFerry 14, Doña Paz
The Philippines, an archipelagic country, has seen several interisland ferries catching fire during their voyages.
Thousands died in two of the worst ship fires over the past 36 years.
READ: Major ferry disasters: 1987-2013
In February 2004, a fire broke out on SuperFerry 14 in Manila Bay, leaving 116 people dead. A group linked to Abu Sayyaf had set off a bomb that triggered the fire in the vessel.
Five days before Christmas in 1987, the MV Doña Paz owned by Sulpicio Lines, was sailing through Tablas Strait off Mindoro Oriental when the vessel collided with the 629-ton MT Vector, which was carrying 9,000 barrels of fuel. The collision caused a fiery explosion, leaving more than 4,000 dead in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.
—WITH REPORTS FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH AND AFP
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