Philippine ferry fire kills 23
LUCENA, Philippines -- At least 23 people died after a passenger ferry with 243 people on board caught fire just 11 nautical miles from the Philippine port of Lucena.
Many of the victims drowned after jumping overboard, while dozens remain missing in the latest maritime tragedy to hit the archipelago.
Fire broke out in the cargo hold of the MV Maria Carmela at around 7:30 am Thursday, just an hour before the 12-hour trip was due to end its journey from the central Philippine island of Masbate to the port of Lucena.
Survivors reported scuffles among passengers over life vests as flames raced through the 680-tonne ship.
Philippine coast guard officials told CNN 150 people were injured, with 70 of those now in the Quezon Memorial Hospital in Lucena City receiving treatment.
Search and rescue operations are also underway for the missing, the officials said. Montenegro Shipping Lines, the owners of the ship, said a total of 219 people had so far been rescued.
The ferry had a crew of 47 and a manifest showing 243 passengers, but there may have been more people aboard, a spokesman for the company said.
Survivors described a stampede while other passengers jumped into the sea upon seeing the blaze.
Lt. Cmdr. Elpidio Gunio, Coast Guard chief in Lucena, told The Associated Press news agency that some of the victims, who included four children, drowned while others suffocated aboard the smoldering ferry.
Guino said the passengers who drowned had panicked because they jumped into the sea without lifejackets even though there were enough to go around.
Julie Ann Caliwan, 14, sobbed as she described her escape. One of her six siblings traveling with her was missing.
"I was sleeping, and when I woke up I saw smoke," she told AP.
"I immediately looked for a life jacket and then I hurriedly jumped out of the boat," she said at an ice-making plant in Lucena where some survivors were taken and fed.
The coast guard said it had not established the cause of the fire but investigators were at the scene.
The sea offers the cheapest and most widely used form of travel in the Philippines, an archipelago of about 7,000 islands.
But overcrowding on inter-island ferries is rife and the safety record is dismal.
In 1987, about 4,000 people died in a collision between the ferry Dona Paz and an oil tanker near Manila -- the world's worst peacetime sea tragedy.
At least 138 people drowned and 70 were rescued two years ago when an overloaded ferry capsized off southern Jolo island.
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