Sat, Feb 28, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Fire follows explosion on ferry

RAGING INFERNO The huge fire that swept through a luxury ferry in waters off Manila killed at least one person while forcing other passengers to jump overboard to escape

DPA , MANILA

The Philippine passenger ferry Super Ferry 14 burns as the Philippine Coast Guard and other vessels come to its aid on Friday, southwest of Manila.

PHOTO: AP

A huge fire raged through a luxury ferry carrying more than 800 people in the Philippines early yesterday, killing at least one person and forcing passengers to leap into the sea to escape the inferno, officials said.

At least eight people were injured in the blaze, triggered by an explosion in the vessel's engine room, with some suffering from severe burns and broken bones, the coastguard said.

Rescuers said 723 passengers and crew members were plucked out of the burning vessel -- the Super Ferry 14 -- and from the icy waters off Corregidor Island, southwest of Manila, while 153 others remained unaccounted for.

Rear Admiral Danilo Abinoja, coastguard deputy commandant for operations, said the fire broke out after an explosion ripped through the boat's engine room.

"Based on our initial investigation, the fire started in the engine room caused by an explosion of still undetermined origin," he said.

Firemen and crew members, led by the ship's captain, struggled to extinguish the raging fire, but were hampered by more explosions two hours after the blaze started.

Christie Ayetona, who was among those rescued, told Manila radio station DZRH from her cellular phone that passengers panicked upon hearing the explosion.

"There was a loud explosion -- there was smoke and then fire," she said. "Panic swept through the boat, but we were still able to put on our life jackets."

While most passengers huddled at the ship's bow for safety as rescue vessels raced to the scene in the middle of the night, some jumped over and swam to nearby fishing boats.

The chaos separated dozens of survivors from their relatives and friends, including a mother and her 11-day-old daughter, who were taken into separate rescue boats but eventually reunited at Manila's South Harbour.

"I couldn't hold on to my baby while going down from the ship, so a crew member took her," said a weeping Carol Mae Castillo as she was reunited with her child.

"I didn't see them in the rescue boat. Thank God she's okay," she said.

The ferry, owned by WG&A, the largest shipping company in the Philippines, left Manila late on Thursday and was on its way to the central city of Bacolod before proceeding to the southern city of Cagayan de Oro.

Gina Virtusio, a spokeswoman for WG&A, said the ferry was "very new" and had been in service for only three years.

She said the boat's captain issued an "abandon ship" order some 40 minutes after the fire broke out as crew members failed to put it out.

"Life rafts were launched and emergency procedures were handled in a safe and orderly manner, transferring the passengers to rescuing vessels in the vicinity," she said in a statement.

Virtusio vowed that WG&A would provide financial assistance to the victims. She stressed the vessel was not overloaded, a common cause of maritime accidents in the Philippines, noting that its capacity was 1,672.

Sea travel is a major mode of transportation in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands.

The country was the site of the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster when more than 4,000 people perished in a collision between the ferry Dona Paz and an oil tanker off the central island of Mindoro just before Christmas in 1987.

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