A Philippine coast guard commander said Friday that the tragic scenes of death his team saw aboard a gutted ferry, including bodies of adults clutching children, had moved them to tears and sparked fears other passengers could be found dead in the still-smoldering ship.
At least 29 of more than 250 people onboard the M/V Lady Mary Joy 3 were killed in the blaze that raged through the ferry Wednesday while it was on an overnight trip from the southern Zamboanga city to Jolo town in Sulu province. At least seven passengers, including two army soldiers, remained missing in the country's deadliest sea disaster this year, the coast guard said.
Basilan Governor Jim Hataman initially reported 31 deaths Thursday but later reduced the toll to 29 after search and rescue groups cross-checked their figures.
All 35 crew members survived, including the captain, who issued an abandon-ship order when the fire hit close to midnight and then ran the ferry aground on an island off Basilan province to give remaining passengers a better chance to survive, coast guard officials said.
Many passengers jumped into the sea in panic without life jackets and were saved by rescuers but at least 11 drowned. When a team of coast guard personnel, including Bureau of Fire officers, boarded the burned ferry on Baluk-baluk island's coast, they discovered the bodies of 18 passengers scattered on the uppermost open-air economy deck and another floor below, coast guard Commander Chadley Salahuddin said.
The passengers, including an adult clutching a child by the railing, could have easily jumped into the sea and survived like many others but failed to do so for unclear reasons. Two passengers, apparently siblings who were among the missing, were found holding each other in a bathroom, he said.
"When I first saw that scene, I was moved to tears with some of my men," Salahuddin told The Associated Press by telephone. "It was a short journey. Why did so many have to die?"
"What if my mother or my other loved ones were the ones who were trapped here? They were just a step away from the open sides but why did they not jump off like the others?" Salahuddin asked.
The passengers, some of whom were burned beyond recognition, could have been overcome by smoke and passed out or could have been immobilized by injuries. Some survivors said they heard a series of firecracker-like blasts during the fire, but Salahuddin said all those details could only be confirmed by investigators.
He feared more bodies could be found in the lower enclosed decks, which remained dangerously hot and could not be inspected Thursday by his team.
His team found a partly burned rifle, which may have been left by a police officer who was among the passengers who survived, Salahuddin said, adding that there was no sign of a bomb explosion at least in the upper decks that they managed to inspect.
The steel-hulled ferry could accommodate up to 430 people and was not overcrowded, said another coast guard official, Commodore Rejard Marfe.
According to the manifest, it was carrying 205 passengers and a 35-member crew, Marfe said. In addition, it had a security contingent of four coast guard marshals, who all survived. Eight soldiers were traveling to Sulu.
Threats posed by Muslim insurgents, including those aligned with the Islamic State group, remain a security issue in the southern Philippines, where cargo and passenger ships are provided extra security by the coast guard and other law enforcement agencies in vulnerable regions.
Marfe said officials are investigating whether the 33-year-old ferry was seaworthy, if there were passengers not listed on the manifest, and whether the crew properly guided passengers to safety.
Sea accidents are common in the Philippines because of frequent storms, badly maintained vessels, overcrowding and spotty enforcement of safety regulations, especially in remote provinces.
In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker, killing more than 4,300 people in the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster.