updated 2/26/2004 11:38:56 PM ET 2004-02-27T04:38:56

A passenger ferry carrying more than 850 people between Philippine islands caught fire early Friday near Manila, sending panicked passengers jumping into the sea. One person died, 12 were injured and scores were missing.

Of the more than 100 passengers unaccounted for, it was unclear whether they were picked up by fishing boats, or were trapped inside the blazing ferry or had disappeared after jumping into the sea, coast guard Commodore Ramon Liwag said.

Twice, the fire appeared to be out, only to rekindle. Shortly after dawn, more than five hours after the blaze broke out, two loud successive explosions inside the back section of the steel-hulled Superferry 14 were followed by billowing black smoke and walls of flame.

At least 737 people had been rescued and one body recovered. Another 12 people were injured, the coast guard said.

Coast Guard firefighters battled the blaze, hampered by strong winds and rough seas. The ferry was listing to one side, and two tugboats tried to prop it up while pumping water that turned to steam as it hit the stricken ship's roof.

There were conflicting reports about what caused the fire. Abinoja said it may have been an explosion in the engine room, while a passenger said an air conditioner exploded.

"All the passengers panicked. We donned life jackets and we ran toward the topmost part of the ship," the passenger, Christie Alletona, 20, told radio station DZRH by cell phone. She said all those around her were rescued.

Abinoja said six coast guard ships and four navy vessels assisted, along with five tugboats, five commercial vessels and fishing boats.

The ship's owner, WG&A, said the fire broke out near Corregidor Island, about 45 miles southwest of Manila, nearly two hours after the ferry left port with 702 passengers and a crew of 159. The ship was headed for the central city of Bacolod and southern Cagayan de Oro city.

Coast Guard Apprentice Jess Galicah said the ship had a capacity of 1,672 passengers.

Small boats and ferries are the chief means of travel among islands in the Philippine archipelago, where boat accidents are common.

The Philippines was the site of the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster when a ferry sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in 1987, killing 4,340 people.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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