31 killed after fire rips through Philippine ferry

A handout screengrab photo from Isabela City Disaster Risk Management Office taken on 30 March, 2023AFP

At least 31 people died and 230 were rescued after a fire engulfed a ferry in the southern Philippines, authorities said Thursday.

The Lady Mary Joy 3 was travelling from Zamboanga City on Mindanao Island to Jolo Island in Sulu province when the fire broke out late Wednesday, prompting passengers to jump overboard, disaster officer Nixon Alonzo said.

Rescuers, including the Philippine Coast Guard and fishermen, saved 195 passengers and 35 crew as the blaze ripped through the ferry off Baluk-Baluk Island in Basilan province.

Photos released by the coast guard showed one of its vessels spraying water on the burning ferry as personnel in smaller boats plucked people from the dark waters.

An earlier death toll more than doubled after the discovery of 18 bodies on the charred vessel, Basilan Governor Jim Salliman told AFP.

The bodies were found inside an air-conditioned cabin during a search of the ferry.

"People panicked because they were asleep when the fire happened," said Commodore Rejard Marfe from the Philippine Coast Guard, citing witness accounts.

The captain ran the vessel aground as the fire spread "so many more could survive since it would be easier to swim to shore", Marfe told AFP.

Salliman said at least three children, including a six-month-old baby, were among the dead.

Authorities said 14 people were injured and seven were missing.

Salliman said there could be more people missing because the number of passengers on the vessel exceeded the 205 listed in the ship's manifest.

Marfe said four members of the coast guard and an unknown number of army personnel were on board the vessel but not listed in 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.

It was not clear how the fire started.

Survivors were taken to Zamboanga and Basilan, where the injured were treated for burns, Salliman said.

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, is plagued by poor sea transport, with its badly regulated ferries prone to overcrowding and accidents.