MANILA, April 1 (Xinhua): The death toll from the fire that broke out on a ferry carrying more than 200 people in the southern Philippines late Wednesday night has risen to 31, including six children, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has confirmed.
However, all 35 crew members survived, including the captain, who issued an abandon-ship order when the fire hit close to midnight and then ran the ferry aground on an island off Basilan province to give remaining passengers a better chance to survive, coast guard officials said.
The M/V Lady Mary Joy 3, a passenger and cargo vessel, was headed to Jolo from Zamboanga City when it caught fire in the waters off Baluk-Baluk Island in Hadji Muhtamad town in Basilan province around 10:40 pm local time on Wednesday.
Commodore Rejard Marfe, the commander of the PCG District in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said 18 torched bodies were found in different parts of the ferry, while another 11 bodies were plucked out from the sea and 230 people were rescued. Six children were among the dead.
"We continue to search the boat for possible casualties," Marfe added, noting that the fire was put out after nine hours.
According to Marfe, the vessel's manifest showed 205 passengers and 35 crew. However, security personnel from the coast guard and the army were not on the list. "The security team includes four coast guard personnel. We are still determining the number of army soldiers on the vessel."
Marfe also said the vessel was not overloaded and can accommodate at least 403 people.
Nixon Alonzo, the chief of disaster reduction and management office in Basilan province, told a local radio that authorities are verifying reports that seven more passengers who jumped into the sea are missing.
Hadji Muhtamad Mayor Arsina Kahing-Nanoh posted pictures of the vessel on the beach of the Baluk-Baluk island and some of the rescued passengers on social media.
Authorities are looking into the cause of the fire, which reportedly started in an air-conditioned cabin in the vessel. Most of the passengers were asleep when the fire broke out.
The PCG said it deployed personnel and its vessel to help in the search and rescue operation, which continues at the time. Xinhua