(MANILA) At least 31 people including three children have died after a ferry fire in the southern Philippines, a regional governor said on Thursday, revising the death toll sharply upwards after the discovery of 18 new bodies in the interior of the charred wreckage.

The Lady Mary Joy 3 was traveling from Zamboanga City, Mindanao Island, to Jolo Island, Sulu Province, when the fire broke out late Wednesday, prompting passengers to jump overboard,” regional disaster management officer Nixon Alonzo said.

Rescuers, including the Philippine Coast Guard and fishermen, were able to rescue 195 passengers and 35 crew members as the ferry caught fire off Baluk-Baluk Island in Basilan province.

The initial toll more than doubled after 18 bodies were found on the ship, Basilan Governor Jim Salliman told AFP, adding that the origin of the fire was at this stage “unclear”. .

“We first recorded 13 deaths, then 18 new deaths, which now makes 31 deaths,” he added.

The bodies were found in an air-conditioned cabin during the inspection of the ferry.

At least three children, including a six-month-old baby, are among the dead, Salliman said.

“People panicked because they were asleep when the fire broke out,” said Commander Rejard Marfe, Philippine Coast Guard.

As the fire spread, the captain let the ship run aground “so that more people could survive and it would be easier to swim to shore”, Mr Marfe told AFP.

Mr Salliman said the toll was likely to rise as the number of passengers on board the ship was higher than the officially listed 205.

According to Mr. Marfe, four members of the coastguard and an unknown number of members of the army were on board the ship, but were not listed on the log.

He said his teams were awaiting additional data to determine if other people were missing.

Photos released by the Coast Guard show one of their ships putting out flames on the ferry while rescuers in smaller craft rescue passengers.

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, suffers from a poor shipping system, with poorly regulated ferries that are often overcrowded and accident-prone.