ZAMBOANGA CITY, Zamboanga del Sur, Philippines — The company that owned the ill-fated MV Lady Mary Joy 3, which caught fire at sea while en route to Sulu province on Wednesday night, has apologized for the tragedy in which 29 have died and seven remain missing.
“We are deeply saddened and shocked over this tragic incident that has resulted in the loss of precious human lives. There are no words to describe the pain of losing a loved one and our hearts go out to the families, friends and relatives whom they left behind,” Aleson Shipping Lines Inc. said on Friday.
“We cannot apologize enough and we are profoundly sorry for the misery this incident has caused to many of us,” the company also said in its statement.
It noted that in its 47 years in the shipping business, Wednesday’s incident was the worst it had experienced.
Zamboanga City Rep. Khymer Adan Olaso, whose wife’s family owns Aleson Shipping, told reporters the company is preparing to provide financial assistance to passengers who were properly documented and whose names were in the boat’s manifest.
According to its manifest, MV Lady Mary Joy 3 had 205 passengers. But various information about the rescue and search operations indicated there were more people who boarded the boat than the total recorded.
“We need to investigate why there are more survivors [than] the number of passengers in the manifesto,” Olaso said, adding that the company will cooperate with investigators.
Citing information shared to him by crew members, the fire was sparked by a defective light bulb in an unoccupied cabin at the lower deck.
“Later on when it was reported, the fire reached the bridge and it was already a big fire. According to the officers, they tried to put off the fire, but [it] spread so fast, most likely the crew failed to [stop it with an] extinguishing system, perhaps they also panicked,” Olaso said.
He said the crew have all been accounted for, with the skipper, whom he did not identify, suffering minor burns on his face.
But based on the accounts of some of the survivors, the crew members were nowhere to be found as the passengers scrambled to evacuate the burning ferry. Mariebeth Julkani recalled that the passengers were not warned about the fire.
But the skipper said he sent a distress call to the Coast Guard around 10:30 p.m.
Julkani said they were awakened around midnight by the commotion at the lower deck. Soon enough, the passengers learned that a fire had struck that area.
Naber Asadil, who is still looking for his 2-month-old baby, said he just saw passengers fleeing in panic as they looked for life jackets.
As he could not secure one, Naber said he tied his 5-year-old son to his body using a “malong” before they jumped off the boat.
Focus on crew
Julkani said she only heard the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) blaring advisories through a radio about avoiding panic, by the time a PCG rescue boat arrived near Basilan’s Baluk-Baluk Island. Soon enough, the PCG trained water cannons at the ferry.
She remembered seeing some crew members mounting life rafts.
PCG spokesperson Rear Adm. Armando Balilo told the Inquirer that his agency was looking into the possible negligence of the crew.
But in an interview with reporters on Friday, lawyer Hash Ibrahim, spokesperson for the company, maintained that the crew did their best to assist the passengers.
Ensign Tenessy Charl Rojas, deputy commander and spokesman for the PCG’s Zamboanga station, said there were survivors who attested to crew members trying to put out the fire.
“They did everything in their power in order to check on the passengers. Unfortunately due to the thick smoke caused by the fire, they were not able to check on all [of them],” she said.
Balilo said “We are looking at all possible angles in our investigation, including if there were issues in the ship’s system, or if it was carrying flammable materials which could be the source of the fire.”
On Saturday, 34 lawyers from this city and from the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi said they had joined hands to offer legal services to the families of the victims.
“As members of the legal profession and as adherents of the Islamic faith, we recognize our religious and moral duty to extend our help to the victims of this unfortunate event,” they said in a joint statement.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan has ordered provincial legal officer Ryan Jumaani to lead the legal assistance effort.
“The Muslim Lawyers Legal Assistance Program aims to provide free legal services to the victims of the MV Lady Mary Joy 3 fire incident, ensuring that they receive the support, guidance, and representation [which] they deserve in seeking justice and compensation,” the lawyers said.