By Neil Jerome Morales, MANILA, March 30: At least 28 people have died including a 6-month-old baby after a fire broke out on an inter-island passenger ferry in the southern Philippines, the coast guard said on Thursday.
Authorities have yet to identify the cause of the fire that started close to 11 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Wednesday off the island of Basilan when many of the passengers were asleep in air-conditioned cabins on the ferry's lower deck.
"Initially there were 10 we recovered, they died of drowning. And then we discovered another 18 on board the vessel, at the cabin. They were burnt," Commodore Rejard Marfe, coast guard chief in the southern Mindanao region, told Reuters.
There were conflicting figures on the number of passengers on the ferry, which was not overloaded, but the coast guard said 230 people including 35 crew were rescued.
Marfe earlier said most were sleeping at the time of the fire, adding "there was chaos".
Firefighters brought the blaze under control early on Thursday.
Photos shared by the Coast Guard showed the MV Lady Mary Joy 3 ship was gutted by fire.
"I thought I was dreaming but when I opened my eyes, it was dark and we were surrounded by smoke," Mina Nani, 46, told DZRH.
She said she survived by jumping off the vessel and sharing a floater with another passenger before they were rescued.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, has a poor record for maritime safety, with vessels often overcrowded and many ageing ships still in use.
In May, at least seven people died after a fire in a high-speed Philippine ferry carrying 134 people.
In 1987, around 5,000 people died in the world's worst peacetime shipping disaster, when an overloaded passenger ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker off Mindoro island south of the capital, Manila.