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Dozens Drown After Ferry Catches Fire in Central Philippines

Dozens of people drowned after a ferry caught fire in central Philippines. Search and rescue operations are continuing to save dozens more who are still missing.

Philippine authorities say the fire started early Thursday morning as the passenger ship was on its way to Lucena city, about 110 kilometers south of the capital, Manila, from the central island of Masbate.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Juancho Marano, says "passengers panicked when they saw fire and jumped out from the ship without lifejackets." He says "those who did not know how to swim drowned."

About 150 passengers were rescued by Coast Guard vessels, fishermen and passing ships, and have been sent to the local hospitals for a check and treatment.

Mr. Marano says "the Coast Guard has not yet established how the fire started, but initial investigation suggests that the fire occurred in the cargo hold where tons of copra was stored."

Copra is a local commodity derived from dried coconut meat from which cooking oil is extracted.

Authorities say the boat was not overloaded. The MV Maria Carmela carried 265 passengers and crew and 12 vehicles on board. Passenger ships are vital transportation links between the country's more than 7,000 islands. Sea mishaps are common mainly due to poor weather and overloading.