MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine coast guard personnel and volunteers have rescued more than 80 passengers and crew of an inter-island ferry that caught fire as it approached a port south of Manila, prompting many to jump into the water as flames spread fast in windy weather, officials said Saturday.
Only two passengers are unaccounted for and authorities are checking if the two are missing or had been rescued but immediately went home without notifying officials who led the search efforts Friday, the coast guard said. The M/V Asia Philippines was listed as carrying 49 passengers and 38 crewmembers.
The ferry, which came from Calapan city in Oriental Mindoro province, was more than a kilometer (about a mile) away from the Batangas port, when smoke emerged from the second deck followed by flames, according to one of the rescued passengers.
The ferry’s proximity to the port allowed the rapid rescue of the victims even after nightfall by coast guard vessels and nearby ships, motor bancas and tugboats. One ship helped the coast guard extinguish the fire, which gutted the ferry that also carried at least 16 cars and trucks, coast guard officials said.
Passenger Benedict Fernandez told DZMM radio Friday night that smoke and flames suddenly rose from the second deck as crew members were apparently trying to turn an engine on and off as the ferry approached the port. There was no immediate order to abandon ship, but when it became hard to see because of the smoke, he said he decided to jump into the water with his two children from the third deck, along with other passengers.
“I pushed my children off because if we didn’t jump from the top, we would really get burned because the soles of our feet were already feeling the heat,” Fernandez said.
They were rescued from the water by another boat that approached the burning ship and then transferred to a tugboat, which brought them to port, he said.
Pictures released by the coast guard showed its personnel trying to revive a rescued passenger, a 43-year-old woman, at the port before she was taken to a hospital with injuries. Fernandez said he and his two children, who were shaken by the experience, and other passengers were taken to a hotel by officials of the company that owned the ferry.
The ferry, which has been towed to an anchorage area, can carry about 400 passengers, the coast guard said, adding an investigation was underway. In the past, there have been instances when ferries carried unlisted passengers in defiance of regulations.
Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats, overcrowding and spotty enforcement of safety regulations, especially in remote provinces.
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.