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Manila ferry fire: 110 missing

The Super Ferry 14: Being allowed to cool before bodies search
The Super Ferry 14: Being allowed to cool before bodies search

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MANILA, Philippines -- At least 110 people were missing as darkness fell on Friday after explosions and fire tore through a Philippine ferry, killing one person and sending many into the sea to escape the flames.

"We have not given up hope of finding more survivors but there's also the possibility that some of them were trapped inside the boat," coastguard spokesman Lieutenant Armand Balilo told reporters after at least 766 people were rescued.

Fires raged on parts of the stricken ferry for 12 hours and smoke could be seen rising from the ship on Friday evening.

Rescuers said they would have to wait for up to two days to let the vessel cool down before they could begin searching for bodies. The 155-metre (510-foot) long ship listed onto its right side after being towed from the mouth of Manila Bay to Bataan island.

The coastguard and owners of the Super Ferry 14 disagreed on the number of missing and the number of passengers on board when disaster struck about an hour into the overnight journey from Manila to Bacolod in the central part of this nation of islands.

One person has been confirmed dead, they agree.

The coastguard said of 879 passengers and crew on board, 766 were rescued. It listed 112 people as missing, including two crew members. The shipping firm said of 899 on board, some 788 were rescued. It also listed one dead and 110 missing.

The owners disputed the coastguard assessment that the fire started in the engine room, saying it began on an upper deck.

Gina Virtusio, a spokeswoman for the WG&A consortium of three shipping lines that owns the vessel, replied to questions about the likelihood of sabotage by saying the owners were "leaning towards that issue."

"We were already lying down to sleep when we heard a loud bang," passenger Mary Jane Silverio told Reuters on the deck of a coastguard vessel. "We ran like everyone else to the lower part of the ship. Some jumped over the side, but I did not."

Dozens of fishing boats plucked people from the choppy seas as coastguard, navy and cargo vessels raced through the darkness of Friday morning to the burning ferry.

"We climbed down on a nylon cord and swam to the nearest fishing boat," Jetro Restiza, one of 43 marine engineering students who were training on the ferry, told Reuters.

"Our instinct was to save ourselves and jump from the ship."

Baby missing

There was no hint the ferry was overloaded -- a common cause of maritime disasters in the Philippines -- as it had a capacity of 1,126 passengers, according to details on the WG&A Web site.

Billed as a "festival" ship, it entered service in October 2000 and featured a beauty parlour, business centre, dining salons and a karaoke room.

Still clutching orange life vests and wearing night clothes, dozens of survivors separated from relatives in the chaos had tearful reunions on shore as others waited anxiously.

Twelve people were hurt, including several with severe burns, the coastguard said.

The ferry company handed out 500 pesos ($8.90) in cash to the passengers and gave them food and Super Ferry T-shirts.

Rodel Castillo turned on his mobile phone on Friday morning to a harrowing text message from his wife, who was taking their 15-day-old daughter to visit her family.

"Our ship is on fire. Don't worry, we're safe, but I got separated from our baby," she wrote in a mixture of English, Tagalog and the Visayan dialect. "Please pray for our baby."

After hours of anguish, Castillo learned his daughter and wife were being brought back to Manila on different ships.

Maritime accidents are relatively common in the Philippines, a country of more than 7,100 islands linked by networks of passenger ferries and cargo ships.

In the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster, more than 4,300 people died in a collision between the ferry Dona Paz and an oil tanker in Philippine waters just before Christmas in 1987.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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