At least 33 die in Bangladesh ferry accident: police

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 28, 2009 19:30 hrs

Rescue workers struggled to find survivors Saturday after at least 33 people died when a Bangladesh ferry overloaded with people returning home to celebrate a Muslim holiday capsized.

Weeping relatives jammed the banks of the river Tentulia in the remote southern village of Nazirpur and watched desperately as divers scoured the icy waters for victims.

"We have recovered 33 bodies. We believe dozens more people were trapped in cabins and in the hold under the water," local police chief Zakir Hossain told AFP here, 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Dhaka.

"We fear they have died," he said.

The dead included 17 children and 10 women, Hossain said.

Officials said they were uncertain about how many people were missing as there are no passenger lists for Bangladesh ferries but they added it could be dozens.

The triple-decker ferry, which had a capacity of 665, "was overcrowded with over 1,000 passengers" when it started taking on water, Hossain said.

Survivors who were returning from Dhaka to their home villages aboard the MV Coco-4 for the three-day Eid al-Adha -- the second biggest festival on the Muslim calendar -- recounted terrifying scenes as the vessel began to sink.

"There was no empty space in the ship. Every inch was filled with passengers," Mohammad Ripon, 30, who survived by jumping into the river, told reporters.

"People were running helter-skelter in panic. Then the ship tilted to the left side and I just jumped into the river," Ripon said.

Amir Hossain, whose brother and nephew were among the missing, said: "Everyone had come back to the village to celebrate Eid. Last night, as we waited for our eldest brother, we heard on the radio the Coco had sunk.

"Our Eid is over," Hossein said.

The accident occurred Friday around midnight as the MV Coco-4, one of the country's largest inland vessels, was approaching the dock on Bhola island in southern Bangladesh.

"We have ordered a probe," Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan told AFP.

"Our initial finding was that the ferry was heavily overloaded. Officials had locked the ferry's exit gate as it approached the shore to find out whether anyone was travelling without a ticket," he said.

"This triggered a stampede, causing the boat to tip," Khan said, adding the vessel also had "a history of fitness problems."

Most passengers managed to swim ashore or were rescued but others were trapped underwater. Some of those rescued were in critical condition.

Divers pulled more than 100 people from the submerged part of the vessel, managing to prise open lower cabins, police said.

Many people in the impoverished South Asian nation often travel by boat without buying a ticket.

Police earlier had quoted survivors as saying a loud noise on the bottom deck triggered the stampede.

Local member of parliament Abdullah Al Islam said authorities were sending a salvage vessel to bring the boat to shore.

"Until we can lift the sunken side, we can't know how many were trapped," he said.

Boat and ferry accidents due to lax safety standards and overloading are common in Bangladesh, which is criss-crossed by a network of 230 rivers.

It is estimated that more than 3,000 people have lost their lives in such accidents since 1977.

Some 39 people died in a ferry accident in February this year and 21 were killed the previous month when a cargo vessel capsized.

Ahead of every festival, Bangladesh authorities warn shipowners not to overload ferries. But owners ignore the warnings.