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Dozens Dead and Hundreds Rescued as Search Efforts Continue After Philippine Ferry Fire: What to Know About the Disaster

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Search and rescue efforts are still underway Thursday for passengers of a commercial ferry that caught fire in the southern waters of the Philippines, Wednesday evening, killing dozens and injuring many more.

At least 205 passengers and 35 crew members were on board the MV Lady Mary Joy 3 when it went up in flames off the coast of Baluk-Baluk Island in Basilan, an archipelagic province some 580 miles south of the Southeast Asian nation’s capital.

Initial figures the Philippine Coast Guard in Zamboanga gave to TIME say 201 people have been rescued as of Thursday afternoon local time. Provincial Governor Jim Hataman-Salliman told the Associated Press that the death toll has climbed to 31, but differing reports from Coast Guard Commodore Rejard Marfe have only confirmed 28 casualties so far. Authorities believe more people were aboard the ferry than those listed in the manifest, and the search and rescue operation is expected to continue through Friday.

The passenger ferry left the Zamboanga port at 8:30 p.m. headed for Jolo in the southernmost province of Sulu. Coast guard officials said they received a report of the fire at around 10:40 p.m. Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire. Arsina Kahing-Nanoh—the mayor of Hadji Muhtamad, the municipality nearest where the ship went ablaze—told CNN Philippines that a rescued passenger said they heard an explosion before the fire. The ship is currently moored in Baluk-Baluk.

The Philippines’ history of accidents at sea

Sea transport in the Philippines is plagued by several issues—from dangerous weather to poor maritime industry regulations to lack of ship maintenance and overcrowding—leaving ships prone to accidents. Latest statistics from the country’s Maritime Industry Authority showed that they investigated 214 accidents at sea in 2021—the most in five years and more than double the number investigated the year before.

In December 1987, the MV Doña Paz, a passenger ferry bound for Manila, collided with an oil tanker carrying 9,000 barrels of combustible petroleum products, sinking the ferry and resulting in more than 4,300 fatalities in one of the world’s deadliest maritime disasters.

A 2011 study of the MV Doña Paz tragedy and other maritime incidents in the country said ships in the Philippines often ply routes with “unpredictable” or “hazardous” travel conditions, often worsened by typhoons. Lack of maritime infrastructure often forces seafarers to rely on “experience and instinct.”

In 2018, the Philippines finalized a 10-year maritime industry development plan—with “the enhancement of maritime safety” among one of its eight key programs.

Accidents, however, continue to happen. Seven people died last year after a high-speed Philippine ferry carrying 134 passengers caught fire just as it was about to approach its destination. The fire reportedly came from the engine room.

And just last month, a tanker that capsized off the coast of Oriental Mindoro, some 110 miles south of Manila, caused an oil spill that spread to other parts of the 7,600-island archipelago, threatening local coastal livelihoods and important marine environments.

Philippine Senator Grace Poe filed a bill earlier this month to create a board governing transportation safety. “Even before reparations are done on an incident, another tragedy strikes claiming lives and harming the environment,” she said in a statement Thursday.

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