13 dead after Indonesian ferry blaze

Merak, Indonesia: At least 13 people were killed when a fire broke out overnight on an Indonesian ferry with more than 400 people aboard, forcing passengers to leap into the sea to escape the blaze.

The ferry caught fire in the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra, about three kilometres (two miles) from the port of Merak at the westernmost tip of Java, at around 3:30 am (2030 GMT Thursday).

"Thirteen people have been killed," Transport Ministry director for maritime passenger services Wiratno, who goes by one name, said, adding more than 400 people had survived.

"The fire has gone and the burnt ferry is now located close to a beach," he said.

Wiratno said personnel from the port, navy and police were still conducting a search of the area for passengers.

The survivors jumped into the sea wearing life jackets and were picked up by boats, he added. Many were transferred to two hospitals in Cilegon on Java for treatment.

Truck driver Musaka, who was a passenger on the ferry, said the fire came from the vehicle area.

"It's very scary when the fire started as it was still very dark. A passenger bus on the vehicle area caught fire first, and my truck also burned," he said.

"I was able to save myself as I could grab a life jacket. I quickly jumped off to the sea."

A female passenger, Lusi, said she escaped but lost track of her five-year old son during the evacuation.

"Hopefully he's already in a safe place as the officials told me that he could be in the hospital," said the passenger, who was heading from Jakarta to reach her home in South Sumatra province.

Hours after the incident witnesses said they saw thick smoke coming from the ferry, but officials in Merak said it was not going to sink.

The vessel had been on its way to Bakauheni, the main port on the southernmost tip of Sumatra.

The Indonesian archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is heavily dependent on ferry services but the industry has a poor safety record and fatal accidents are common.

Up to 335 people were killed when a heavily overloaded ferry sank off the island of Sulawesi in January 2009.

Institute for Transportation Studies researcher Izzul Waro linked the numerous accidents to the archipelago's complex geography but also to the lack of a solid transportation safety system.

"Many people still neglect the already established safety system in practice. Our rescuers also still need better training or emergency simulation to anticipate accidents," Waro said.

"A comprehensive audit is needed soon for sea transport in the country," he added.

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