At least 31 dead after Philippines ferry carrying 250 passengers catches fire

Philippine Coast Guard respond to the fire incident onboard M/V LADY MARY JOY 3 at the waters off Baluk-Baluk Island (via REUTERS)
Philippine Coast Guard respond to the fire incident onboard M/V LADY MARY JOY 3 at the waters off Baluk-Baluk Island (via REUTERS)

At least 31 people died, 23 were injured, and seven others went missing after a passenger ferry caught fire in the seas off the southern Philippine province of Basilan.

The ferry, travelling from Zamboanga city on Mindanao Island to Jolo Island in Sulu province, was carrying 250 passengers and crew when it caught fire late on Wednesday.

Several people rescued had reportedly jumped off the MV Lady Mary Joy 3 in panic when the blaze began tearing through the ferry. They were rescued from the sea by the coastguard, navy, another ferry, and local fishermen, said governor Jim Hataman of Basilan province.

Photos shared by the coast guard showed the ship being sprayed with water, while passengers were brought to the shore.

The search and rescue effort continued on Thursday for seven missing passengers.

Authorities are checking for "signs of oil spill" and assisting in the conduct of investigation and assessment of the vessel, the coast guard said in a statement.

The charred ferry was towed to Basilan's shoreline, where coastguard personnel and other authorities discovered 18 of the bodies in a budget section of the passenger cabin, the governor said.

"These victims perished onboard due to the fire," he added.

It was not clear how the fire started.

At least 23 passengers were injured and taken to hospital.

An investigation is underway, the governor said, adding that the preliminary report suggested there were additional travellers not listed on the vessel's manifest.

"Some of the passengers were roused from sleep due to the commotion caused by the fire. Some jumped off the ship," Mr Hataman told the Associated Press.

Commodore Rejard Marfe from the Philippines coast guard told AFP that people panicked because they were asleep when the fire broke out.

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

Mina Nani, 46, who was on the ferry, said she survived by jumping off the vessel and shared a floater with another passenger before they were rescued.

“I thought I was dreaming but when I opened my eyes, it was dark and we were surrounded by smoke,” she told DZRH.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, due to frequent storms, badly maintained boats, poor sea transport with overcrowding and patchy enforcement of safety regulations.

In May last year, at least seven people died after a fire broke out in a high-speed Philippine ferry carrying 134 people.

In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.