JAKARTA, Indonesia – A mother begged a cargo hand to take her 18-month-old daughter after fire engulfed an Indonesian ferry Thursday, then jumped into the sea along with hundreds of other passengers. Sixteen people died and scores were injured.
Heru, who goes by one name, said he tried to scale a rope with the toddler as smoke billowed around him, but was knocked into the water by a falling passenger. He saw the woman clinging to a water cooler and swam toward her.
"The baby was crying 'Mama! Mama! and she insisted I hand over the child," he said. Fifteen minutes later, the two disappeared beneath the dark waves. "Now they're gone."
The Levina 1 was carrying 300 passengers when a pre-dawn blaze broke out in a truck on the car deck hours after the ferry left the capital, Jakarta, for the northwestern island of Bangka, port official Sato Bisri said. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.
Remarkably, 275 people were rescued from the Java Sea and the 2,000-ton vessel's charred hull by fishing boats, warships and helicopters, averting a second major maritime disaster in Indonesia the last several months. In late December, a ferry sank in a storm in the Java Sea, killing more than 400 people.
At least 17 people were still missing following Thursday's fire, said Navy spokesman Hendra Pakan. The search for survivors continued after darkness fell.
"It was terrifying," said Yas Rijal, 33, who was with his wife and son on the upper deck when the fire broke out. "The crew ordered us to put on yellow life vests and we jumped."
Rosiah, 28, who also goes by one name, was among those who did not get a life vest. But as the ferry's deck got hotter, she became increasingly desperate and plunged into the sea with her 5-month-old son.
"I just wanted save my baby," she said, weeping. "I didn't think of the risk."
"We sank for a long time and by the time we came to the surface, he wasn't breathing," Rosiah said. "He was dead, but I couldn't let go. I held onto him for what felt like an hour before being rescued by a fisherman."
She said she did not know what happened to her husband and two other children.
One survivor told AP Television News he was sleeping when the fire started.
"When I woke up, I saw a big fire and I just jumped into the water. All I was thinking was how I had to survive," Tarjani said.
Sunarjo, another survivor, said he swam all morning before being rescued. "If I hadn't torn off my pants I'd probably be dead now," he said.
Most survivors were taken to the port at Jakarta, about 50 miles from where the ship caught fire. The injured were taken to hospitals or cared for at a makeshift treatment center at the port.
Transportation Minister Hatta Rajasa said the ferry carried 300 passengers, but the ship's log indicated there were 228 passengers, 42 trucks and eight cars on board. Tallies of ferry passengers are often incomplete and boats overloaded in Indonesia.
In the vast nation of 17,000 islands, ferries are the cheapest and most popular form of public transportation. But safety standards are poor, leading to hundreds of deaths each year.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of transportation disasters in recent months.
Days after the December ferry sinking, a passenger plane operated by the budget airline Adam Air crashed into the ocean, killing all 102 people aboard. All seven of the company's Boeing 737-300 planes were grounded Thursday, a day after the fuselage of one of its planes cracked during a hard landing.