Many reported dead in southern Philippines ferry fire

Roel Pareno
Zamboanga, Philippines
Many reported dead in southern Philippines ferry fire A Philippine Coast Guard vessel battles a fire aboard the ferry M/V Lady Mayor Joy 3 in the vicinity of Baluk-Baluk island off Hadji Muhtamad town in Basilan province, southern Philippines, March 29, 2023.
Handout photo/Courtesy of Hadji Muhtamad Mayor Arsina Nanoh

At least 28 people were killed while 230 others were rescued after a passenger and cargo ferry caught fire off the southern Philippine island of Basilan, officials said Thursday.

As many as 18 burned bodies were found aboard the M/V Lady Mary Joy 3 on Thursday after the blaze that gutted the boat was extinguished, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said. The fire was the deadliest in recent memory on a ferry in the Philippines, a popular mode of transportation in the archipelago nation.  

“The bodies were discovered in different parts of the ferry,” according to a report from Commodore Rejard Marfe, the local district commander for the coast guard. The PCG had earlier confirmed 10 dead.

When asked about the number of missing people, he said the emergency teams had no confirmed information immediately available because the manifest showed there were supposed to be only 240 passengers and crew on board, Marfe said.

But there were Coast Guard personnel and Philippine Army soldiers who had also boarded the ferry but were not listed on the manifest, he said. 

The M/V Lady Mary was cruising in waters off Baluk-Baluk island, part of Basilan, when the fire broke out late Wednesday, the coast guard said. The boat was carrying 240 people, including at least 35 crew members, according to its manifest. 

However, it is not uncommon for more people to be onboard a vessel than the number officially indicated. As of 2 p.m. on Thursday, the death toll jumped to 18 from 10 after several bodies were found in the area of Baluk-Baluk, authorities said. 

Some of those rescued sustained minor burns and bruises to their bodies, according to authorities from Basilan and in Zamboanga city across the strait.

Cmdr. Christopher Domingo, the local coast guard commander, said the ill-fated ship’s captain immediately alerted the station about the fire, prompting the coast guard to dispatch three of their boats to respond to the emergency.

“It was a sad day for all of us. We received calls from the boat captain about 10 p.m. reporting that their ship was on fire,” Domingo said, adding that fishing boats nearby also responded to the distress call.

Among those who perished were at least three minors, all girls, while the rest were all adults, he said. Some of the victims were brought to Basilan and the others in this city and were provided medical attention in the different hospitals.

Ferry 1.jpg
The gutted ferry M/V Lady Mary Joy 3 is seen on the shores of Baluk-Baluk island off Hadji Muhtamad town, Basilan province, southern Philippines, March 30, 2023. [Handout photo/Courtesy of Hadji Muhtamad Mayor Arsina Nanoh]

The burnt ferry ran aground in Barangay Baluk-Baluk island, said Hadji Muhtama town Mayor Arsina Nanoh, who was among the first responders.

Domingo said an initial investigation showed that the fire originated from passengers’ accommodation area and quickly spread towards the kitchen area. Arson investigators were checking this account.

“According to the ship captain the fire started at the passengers’ accommodation area in the air- conditioned section and reached the kitchen where an explosion reportedly occurred, possibly from an LPG tank,” Domingo said.

The ferry is operated by Alesson Shipping, which is owned by a local politician.

Domingo said that some of the passengers jumped overboard with their life vests and were rescued by fishermen. The ship, however, reached the shore after the fire was put out.

Jobert Galas, a soldier with 41st Infantry Battalion who was also a passenger, said they were already asleep when they were woken by the commotion.

“We heard passengers rushing and shouting there was thick smoke and as we went out from our cabin there was already a big fire and everyone was already rushing out while we looked for a life vest and jumped out,” Galas told reporters here.

Ferries are the most common mode of transportation in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,100 islands.

In 1987, passenger ferry Doña Paz collided with the MT Vector, an oil tanker carrying more than 1,000 tons of gasoline and other petroleum products off Tablas Strait in the central Philippines.

More than 4,300 passengers and crew were killed in that incident, which is believed to be the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.


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