At least 37 people died Friday in an inferno on an overcrowded night ferry in Bangladesh, with terrified passengers leaping overboard and dozens including children still unaccounted for.
The latest maritime tragedy to hit the impoverished low-lying nation saw a fire burn through the three-story vessel in the early hours while passengers slept on board.
As light broke, rescue workers combed through the still-smoking and charred remains of the vessel, removing dead bodies wrapped in white plastic as distraught relatives waited on the muddy riverbank for news.
“I have just found the body of my mother-in-law. She jumped in the river and died of drowning. I don’t know what happened to my wife and children,” said Mohammad Russell from the riverbank near Jhalkathi, 250 kilometers south of Dhaka.
“I searched the hospital. My wife and children weren’t there. I hope they survived by jumping into the river. Oh, Allah, save them,” he told AFP.
Mohammad Ismail, 48, said that he threw his mother overboard into the “very cold” river and dragged her to the shore, but when he returned on a fishing boat his wife and daughter were nowhere to be seen.
“I saw a person burning in flames,” he told AFP by phone. “My other daughter survived after someone threw her in the river.”
“My father, me, my six-month-old nephew and my sister were traveling together. When the fire broke, I gave the baby to a man. He was trying to save the baby. But now we cannot find them,” one woman survivor said.
Witnesses said the blaze originated in the engine room, which may already have been on fire when the vessel left Dhaka late Thursday.
It had a license to carry 420 people but survivors said it was overcrowded. One official estimated that up to 700 passengers were on board when it left Dhaka.
“We were sleeping on a mat on the ground floor deck. All the passengers were sleeping. My nine-year-old grandson, Nayeem, was with me, he jumped into the river. I don’t know what happened to him,” said an elderly grandmother.
Local police chief Moinul Islam told AFP that with an unknown number of people having jumped overboard, the death toll may rise further.
“We have sent some 100 people with burn injuries to hospitals in Barisal,” Islam said.
“The fire went on for four or five hours before it was doused. The entire [ferry] has been gutted. But they managed to bring it to the shore,” local district administrator Johar Ali told AFP.
“It is a new ship. It was constructed in 2019 and it has its fitness cleared until 2022,” Golam Sadek, head of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, told AFP.
Experts in the South Asian nation of 170 million people blame poor maintenance, lax safety standards at shipyards and overcrowding for the all-too-frequent such tragedies.
In August, at least 21 people were killed when a boat packed with passengers and a sand-laden cargo ship collided. In April and May, 54 were killed in two separate accidents.
Fires are also a regular occurrence. In July, 52 people perished in a blaze in a food factory in an industrial town outside Dhaka. In February 2019, 70 died in another blaze.