100 missing after ferry fire

By PAUL ALEXANDER

Associated Press


MANILA, Philippines - Rescuers searched yesterday for about 100 passengers reported missing after a fire turned their overnight ferry into a smoldering wreck. At least one person was killed and about 800 others, including the crew, were rescued.

Officials said the missing might have been trapped inside the blazing Superferry 14 or drowned in Manila Bay, and some could have been picked up by fishing boats. The still-smoldering ferry, towed to shallow water, lay on its side as dark fell yesterday, too dangerous to search.

The 10,192-ton, steel-hulled ship left Manila at 11 p.m. Thursday for stops in the central and southern Philippines. With air-conditioned staterooms, it was one of the more luxurious ways to travel among islands in the sprawling archipelago.

Most passengers had settled in for the night when a powerful explosion sparked the inferno that killed at least one person and injured 12 others.

Grabbing lifejackets, people scrambled to get off the ship. Two young mothers were separated from their babies in the chaos as most of the 744 passengers and the entire crew jumped into Manila Bay, where fishing boats, a passing freighter and other vessels plucked them from the water.

The two mothers later found their babies - one was carried to safety by Nelia Tubio, who was five months' pregnant herself.

"I'm very happy. Saving a baby is like saving an angel," Tubio said.

Twice, the fire appeared to be out, only to rekindle. Shortly after dawn, more than five hours after the blaze erupted, two loud, successive explosions inside the back section of the ferry were followed by billowing black smoke and walls of flames.

There were conflicting reports about what caused the explosion and fire. Coast guard Rear Adm. Danilo Abinoja said it may have originated in the engine room, while a passenger said an air conditioner exploded.

Gina Virtusio, spokeswoman for the ship's owner, WG&A, said the fire started in the tourist section on the third deck, which includes air-conditioned sleeping cabins and a dining area.

She said the company follows strict anti-terror measures, which included bomb-sniffing dogs on the ship.

The rescue operation included air force helicopters, six coast guard ships, four navy vessels, five tugboats, five commercial vessels and a number of fishing boats.

The ship was headed for the central city of Bacolod and southern Cagayan de Oro city. WG&A said the fire broke out near Corregidor Island, about 45 miles southwest of Manila, nearly two hours after the ferry left port.

Coast guard Apprentice Jess Galicah said the ship had a capacity of 1,672 passengers. It was built in Japan about 15 years ago.

Small boats and ferries are the chief means of travel among islands in the Philippine archipelago, where boat accidents are common.

The Philippines was the site of the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster when a ferry sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in 1987, killing 4,340 people.