By Teofilo Garcia, Jr.

BOAT FIRE. A vessel ran aground after it caught fire near Hadji Muhtamad town, Basilan province, while en route to Jolo, Sulu, on Wednesday night (March 29, 2023). In a report Thursday (March 30, 2023), the Philippine Coast Guard says 28 people died while 233 others were rescued from the burning vessel. (Photo courtesy of Kilo India)

ZAMBOANGA CITY – Twenty-eight people died and over 200 people were rescued after a commercial vessel caught fire Wednesday night near the waters off Hadji Muhtamad town in Basilan province.

The fire broke out around 11:30 p.m. while the vessel, M/V Lady Mary Joy 3, was nearing Baluk-Baluk Island of the municipality sailing to Jolo, Sulu, from this city.

Nickson Alonzo, Basilan Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office chief, said that 18 charred bodies were recovered Thursday afternoon by firemen who managed to enter the upper deck of M/V Lady Mary Joy 3.

The remains of the other 10 fatalities were recovered early Thursday by responding personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard, Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NFWM), and Army Special Forces (Seaborne).

Alonzo said they are still validating that there are still seven missing passengers.

“The firemen have not yet checked the lower deck of the vessel since the floor is still too hot. Smoke still emits from the lower deck,” Alonzo said, adding they will resume the search and retrieval operation Friday morning.

Commander Christopher Domingo, chief of the Zamboanga Coast Guard Station, said the fire started at the passengers’ cabin accommodation area based on the information given to him by the boat skipper.

However, Domingo said they have yet to determine the cause of the fire.

A boat passenger, Private 1st Class Jobert Galas of the Sulu-based 41st Infantry Battalion, said they were awakened by the commotion among co-passengers shouting about smoke engulfing the boat.

“A few moments later, the smoke thickened and fire broke out. The people panicked running in different directions and start jumping overboard,” Galas said over a local radio station.

He said four of the 20 soldiers who were with him suffered minor burns and were treated at the Isabela City hospital.

Rear Admiral Donn Anthony Miraflor, NFWM commander, said there were 240 people aboard the vessel consisting of 35 crew and 205 passengers at the time of the incident.

The boat skipper ran aground M/V Lady Mary Joy in Baluk-Baluk Island to lessen casualties based on orders from the coast guard and the management of the Aleson Shipping Lines.

House of Representatives Minority Leader and Basilan Rep. Mujhiv Hataman extended PHP3,000 in financial assistance from his office to each of 68 survivors.

After proper coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, he said an additional PHP2,000 would be given to each victim.

“We are trying to get all information on the ground and formulate our own assessment of the situation, which will be the basis of our next steps in bringing aid to the victims and their families in this tragedy,” Hataman said. (With a report from Zaldy De Layola/PNA)