Scores of people were missing today after a passenger ferry carrying more than 850 people between Philippine islands caught fire near Manila.
Two people died and 12 were injured.
It was unclear how many of the 60-plus passengers and crew listed as unaccounted for were picked up by fishing boats, were trapped inside the blazing ferry or drowned after jumping into the sea, coastguard Commodore Ramon Liwag said.
Twice, the fire, which started last night, appeared to be out, only to rekindle.
Shortly after dawn, more than five hours later, two loud successive explosions inside the back section of the steel-hulled Superferry 14 were followed by billowing black smoke and walls of flame.
The ship’s owner, WG&A, said 633 passengers and 155 crew members had been rescued and two bodies recovered.
Another 12 people were injured, the coastguard said.
Coastguard firefighters battled the blaze, hampered by strong winds and rough seas.
The ferry was listing to one side, and two tugboats tried to prop it up while pumping water that turned to steam as it hit the stricken ship’s roof.
The smoking ship was towed into a cove in Morong town on the Bataan Peninsula, near the mouth of Manila Bay.
There were conflicting reports about what caused the fire. Coastguard Rear Adm Danilo Abinoja said it may have been an explosion in the engine room, while a passenger said an air conditioner exploded.
WG&A spokeswoman Gina Virtusio said the fire started in the tourist section on the third deck, which includes air-conditioned sleeping cabins and a dining area.
“We don’t know what really happened,” she told reporters.
She also said the company follows strict anti-terror measures, which included bomb-sniffing dogs on the ship.
It wasn’t clear what happened to the animals.
“All the passengers panicked. We donned life jackets and we ran toward the topmost part of the ship,” the passenger, Christie Alletona, 20, told radio station DZRH by mobile phone.
She said all those around her were rescued.
A Dutch passenger, Wilhelm Van Eeken, said he was sleeping in a cabin with his Filipina wife and three-year-old son when they were woken by a strong explosion.
A crew member knocked on the door and told them to assemble on the deck, where they were lowered on to a waiting boat.
Abinoja said six coastguard ships and four navy vessels assisted, along with five tugboats, five commercial vessels and fishing boats.
WG&A said the fire broke out near Corregidor Island, about 45 miles south west of Manila, nearly two hours after the ferry left port with 702 passengers and a crew of 159.
The ship was heading for the central city of Bacolod and southern Cagayan de Oro city.
Coastguard Apprentice Jess Galicah said the ship had a capacity of 1,672 passengers. It was built in Japan about 15 years ago and had been operated by WG&A for the last three years.
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.