In one of the worst boat tragedies in recent times in Bangladesh,at least 35 people,including women and children,were killed and over 150 missing when a ferry packed with nearly 300 passengers capsized in a river today after a head-on collision with an oil tanker.
“Bodies of 35 people,including four minor children were retrieved so far,” a fire service official told PTI as relatives joined rescuers in search o f missing passengers.
The tragedy occurred in the river Meghna in the Munshiganj district,about 32 kilometres south of Dhaka after the ferry collided head-on with a tanker carrying oil.
“Fifty passengers swam ashore or were rescued by nearby fishing boats and two other launches…we fear over 150 passengers are missing,” president of Inland Waterways Passenger Career Association Badiuzzaman Badal told PTI.
Rescue workers and Naval divers toiled for hours to bring back to surface the sunken double-decker ferry to bring out the trapped passengers,50 of whom swam to safety.
While media reports identified the boat involved in the tragedy as passenger ferry ‘MV Shariatpur’,Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan said it was a commercial-cum passenger ferry carrying sand and chillies bound for Dhaka when it collided with the oil tanker and sank at about 3 am this morning.
“It is feared that more people are still trapped in the sunken vessel and salvage vessel is making efforts to break into the trapped ferry,” he said.
“We fear that the death toll is likely to rise as more bodies are trapped inside,” the minister said while local officials said that a better picture of the casualties would be known once the sunken vessel is brought to surface.
Confusion still prevailed over numbers of passengers involved in the mishap as ferry operators rarely keep a list of passengers. Most passengers buy tickets once on board.
Survivors said most of the passengers were asleep when MV Shariatpur sank while it was coming to Dhaka’s Sadarghat Terminal from Sureshwar of western Shariatpur.
“I saw bodies floating on the water…we salvaged several of them,” said an official of another launch that joined the rescue campaign.
Officials said the exact number of the passengers could not be confirmed as the launch did not maintain a register.
Most passengers buy tickets once on board. Most of the passengers were residents of Shariatpur who were travelling to the capital for work or business purposes.
Three of the missing passengers were Bangladesh-born US nationals.
“Rescue operations will be carried out until the launch is retrieved and the bodies were recovered…we will take appropriate steps on receipt of reports of the (three) investigation committees,” the Shipping minister said.
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) officials said their salvage vessel Rustom had reached the spot where the sunken launch was lying under 70 feet water in a slanted position.
Another vessel Hamza was on its way to join the rescue mission.
“The Rustom can retrieve a sunken vessel weighing as heavy as 60 tonnes but the launch weighed 90 tonnes,so we need another salvage vessel to join us to pull it up,” Rustom’s commander Fazlul Haque told reporters.
Ferry boats are the main form of travel in river criss- crossed Bangladesh and often ply overloaded. Thirty-two people were killed in April last year after a passenger vessel sank in the Meghna river after colliding with a cargo ship. In 2009,at least 85 people drowned when an overloaded triple- decker ferry capsized off Bhola Island in southern Bangladesh.
Authorities earlier said a five-member Shipping Ministry’s investigation committee had been set up and tasked to submit its report in five days. Shipping Minister Khan later said two other committees of the shipping department and BIWTA officials have been formed to get a clearer picture of the tragedy.
The minister said that action would be taken against the owners of the vessel after investigations.
One of the survivor,Dulal Dewan,told reporters that eight members of his family were still missing.
“My brother-in-law Shamim Fakir and his wife Poly were among them. They were scheduled to leave for Dubai on an 11am flight,” he was quoted as saying by Bdnews 24.
Meanwhile,the minister announced that Tk 30,000 (USD 367) will be provided for a victim’s family and Tk 45,000 (USD 550) for the family with more than one victim.