Divers yesterday battled to recover bodies trapped in the wreckage of a Bangladesh ferry that was sunk by a giant wave, as the death toll from the disaster rose to 26 with scores more feared drowned.
As survivors blamed the captain of the MV Miraz for refusing to take shelter from a gathering storm, an investigation was launched into whether it had been carrying too many passengers.
Bangladesh is no stranger to ferry disasters, with overcrowding and poor ship design and maintenance often to blame.
Officials said as many as 200 people may have been on the ferry when it sank to the bottom of the river Meghna on Thursday afternoon, about 50km southeast of the capital, Dhaka.
As distraught relatives gathered by the side of the river where bodies were being laid out, two initial bids to raise the ferry failed before two salvage ships embarked on another attempt to drag it to shore.
“Many of the passengers rushed to lower decks of the ship to escape from heavy wind. They were trapped. I am afraid most of the bodies will be found there,” Bangladesh’s water transport authority chief Shamsuddoha Khandaker said.
Khandaker said up to 40 people were able to swim to safety or were rescued by fishing boats after the vessel began to list, but it went down in minutes.
“The death toll now stands at 26, including 15 women and children,” local police chief Ferdous Ahmed said.
The exact number of passengers was not immediately known, as Bangladeshi ferries do not maintain passenger logbooks.
Officials had initially said up to 350 people could have been on board when the ferry capsized, but Khandaker said the number was thought to be smaller.
“It is a mid-sized ferry and was about 90 feet [27.4m] long. It can carry around 500 passengers without cargo. But from what we have gathered so far, it was carrying around 150 to 200 passengers at the time of the accident,” he said.
An investigation has been ordered into whether the vessel was carrying more than its capacity or whether it had structural faults.
Some survivors blamed the skipper for defying calls to abort the journey as the weather worsened.
“The sky became black and dozens of us pleaded with him to take the ship to the nearest shore as we saw the storm coming. He did not listen to us,” survivor Mohammad Ali said.
“The storm unleashed three huge waves. The ferry survived the first two, but the third tilted and then sank the vessel within minutes,” he said.
“I was holding the hand of my wife and she was tightly holding our six-year-old son to her chest,” the garment worker added.
“After the third wave, I did not see them again,” Ali, struggling to hold back tears, said on the banks of the river.
Another wailed for his missing son.
“My son said: ‘Father please save me, please save me,’ but I couldn’t,” he said.
Hundreds of distraught relatives gathered on the banks of the river as the bodies were laid in lines in order to be identified. Others accompanied rescuers on boats as they searched for the missing passengers.
Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest nations which is crisscrossed by more than 230 rivers.
Experts blame poorly maintained vessels, flaws in design and overcrowding for most of the tragedies.
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