1 000 saved from blazing Philippine ferry

2000-10-12 07:14

Manila - More than 1 000 passengers of a Philippine inter-island ferry were plucked to safety on Thursday after a pre-dawn fire swept through the vessel while on its way to Manila, the coastguard and officials said.

All of the 862 passengers and 168 crew of the Superferry 6 were safe and the fire was under control, officials said.

"All people on board have been accounted for," said Gina Virtusio, spokeswoman for the ship's owner, WG and A Lines. She said some passengers may have suffered minor injuries.

Coastguard cutters and two passing commercial ships swiftly responded to a distress call by the captain of Superferry 6 and helped pick up the passengers who abandoned the ship an hour into the blaze, the coastguard said.

The blaze, the cause of which was not known, occurred at around 5.25am on Thursday (2125 GMT Wednesday), officials said.

The ship's captain quickly ordered all on board to abandon ship and sent out distress signals, preventing a disaster, Virtusio said.

A plane passing overhead reported that dark smoke was still pouring from the vessel three hours after the fire began.

The blaze broke out before dawn on an upper deck from still-undermined causes, Virtusio said. The passengers were transferred to two ships belonging to the company and to other vessels that were in the same area, off Batangas south of Manila, she said.

Coast guard operations commander Clinio Yalao said some passengers jumped from the ship into the ocean but were retrieved by nearby ships.

The inter-island ferry was returning to Manila from the southern city of General Santos when the fire broke out while it was off the coast of Batangas province, about 100 kilometres south of the capital.

"I would like to inform relatives of the 700 passengers of Superferry 6 from General Santos and Iloilo that all have been accounted for, there are no casualties," Vertucio said over ABS-CBN television.

She said that once the captain issued the "abandon ship" call, the 119 crew made sure that all 700 passengers listed on the manifest were safely brought down. "We also alerted all nearby ships to help us in the rescue operations."

The majority of the rescued passengers have been taken by responding commercial vessels to a port in Batangas and in nearby Mindoro island, while the others are en route aboard other vessels.

Officials cofirmed that no one was reported injured, but added that some were provided with "medical assistance".

"What we are focused on right now is that they are attended to and we should be able to bring them back to Manila and bring them home safely," Vertucio added.

She said sister ships were expected to arrive on the scene to pick up the rescued passengers and bring them back to the capital.

Inter-island ferries are the backbone of transportation in this archipelago of 7 000 islands, largely because they are cheaper than air travel.

Thursday's fire is the latest in a string of ferry accidents here.

In December last year, the Asia-South Korea sank in the central Philippines, killing 44 Christmas holidaymakers, while in April this year the overloaded ferry Anahada, with up to 200 people on board, went down off a southern island. Fifty-six people died in that accident.

In 1987, more than 4 000 people died when the ferry Dona Paz sank in the central waters after colliding with an oil tanker five days before Christmas, in what is considered as history's worst peacetime maritime disaster. - Sapa-AFP