3 dead, 245 rescued after Philippine ferry blaze

Passengers and coast guard rescuers following a ferry fire off Dapitan city, Philippines, on Aug 28, 2019.
Passengers and coast guard rescuers following a ferry fire off Dapitan city, Philippines, on Aug 28, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (AP/AFP) - At least three people were killed and 245 others were rescued after a fire engulfed a ferry in the southern Philippines overnight, the coast guard said on Wednesday (Aug 28).

Search and rescue efforts were continuing after the fire on the M/V Lite Ferry 16 off Dapitan city in Zamboanga del Norte province, coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said.

“We did not have any patrol ship in the area so we alerted nearby ships and boats to render assistance because it was an emergency,” Mr Balilo said by phone. “It’s good that a number of ships immediately responded. We have to recognise what they did.”

The blaze broke out in the pre-dawn darkness as the boat sailed to Dapitan City from Cebu, prompting some of the terrified people on board to throw themselves into the water, one witness said

It was not immediately clear how many people were actually on board, a common dilemma when such sea accidents happen. The coast guard said a manifest showed the 645-tonne ferry was carrying 136 passengers, including 28 children and 36 crew members.

The Philippine Coast Guard said 102 people had been rescued and two confirmed dead - a 60-year-old man, and a one-year-old child. Mr Balilo also said a third person died, but did not have any details.

It was unclear whether there were still people missing but no relatives have approached the authorities to report any, and an ongoing search will continue, Mr Balilo said.

Search operations were continuing on Wednesday as the authorities worked to confirm the actual number of missing.

The boat's official manifest listed 137 on board, but many more may have been on the vessel. It was unclear why 245 were rescued, much more than the combined number of passengers and crew, Mr Balilo said, adding that investigators would ask the owner and ferry skipper to explain the discrepancy.

Local emergency authorities said they had accounted for 215 survivors, nearly double the number provided by the Coast Guard.

"It seems many people were not listed on the manifest," Mr Nelson Quimiguing, a disaster management officer in Dapitan City, told AFP.

Photos showed passengers wearing orange life vests waiting to be rescued at the loading bay of the ferry, which also carried some vehicles. Orange flames and smoke would later engulf almost the entire ferry in the darkness but the ship stayed afloat, about 3km off a port in Dapitan city, where it was destined.

Some passengers were quoted in local news reports as saying they jumped off the ship into the choppy waters in panic when the fire broke out and were later rescued by passing cargo and fishing vessels.

The inter-island ferry left Santander town in central Cebu province Tuesday, Mr Balilo said. The fire apparently started in the engine room.

Meanwhile, officials warned ferries not to venture out to sea in the northern Philippines after a fast-moving storm blew across the main island of Luzon overnight. The storm weakened into a tropical depression after slamming into Aurora province late on Tuesday from the Pacific. Classes were suspended and heavy rains were reported in some northern provinces, but no deaths or injuries were immediately reported.

The Philippines, an archipelago , is plagued by poor sea transport, with its badly regulated boats and ships prone to overcrowding and accidents.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago, of more than 7,000 islands, because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats, overcrowding and weak enforcement of safety regulations.

In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.