JAKARTA • A fire gutted a boat carrying hundreds of local tourists to an island north of the Indonesian capital Jakarta yesterday, leaving at least 23 dead and 17 injured, officials said.
Passengers panicked and jumped into the sea as flames and smoke rapidly engulfed the Zahro Express shortly after it left port to head to the popular holiday island of Tidung, the national disaster agency said.
Another 17 people were missing and 194 were rescued following the blaze, which started with an explosion in the engine room that the Transport Ministry said was accidental and could have been caused by an electrical fault.
"Fifteen minutes after the boat set sail, people at the back of the boat started making noise," female passenger Evi, who gave only one name, told local station Metro TV.
"Then I saw smoke, there was more and more, the boat was crowded and people were fighting for life jackets."
Survivor Juju Rukminingsih said someone took her son's life jacket just as he was about to jump from the boat.
"When we wanted to go, I panicked because I saw my son jump off the boat without a (life jacket) because somebody else had taken it," she told a local TV station.
Fishermen plucked many of the passengers - all of whom were believed to be Indonesians - to safety and firefighting boats were deployed to put out the blaze.
The Indonesian archipelago relies heavily on boats to ferry people round its 17,000 islands but has a patchy safety record. Overcrowding of boats is common.
"The boat's manifest says there are around 100 people on board, but obviously that's wrong, so we are still searching," said national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.