The engine of the ill-fated launch developed problems a couple of hours after it left the capital for Barguna around 6:00pm on Thursday.
Several employees of the MV Abhijan-10 tried to fix the problem while keeping the vessel moving fast with over 1,000 passengers on board. The passengers noticed the engine behaving erroneously around 8:00pm.
he people on the ground floor of the vessel felt everything getting hot nearly half an hour after it left Barishal Launch Terminal around 1:30am yesterday.
Most of the passengers were asleep in the cabins and the decks as the burning vessel kept moving on the Shugandha river.
Many of those who were awake saw flames emanating from the engine room and those on the roof saw the exhaust pipe churning out fire when the vessel was near Jhalakathi Launch Terminal.
Even though the launch was on fire, the master didn’t stop at Jhalakathi. He kept going until there was an explosion that started a huge fire. The vessel was in the Charkathi area of Jhalakathi Sadar around 2:00am.
The deadly fire reduced the vessel to a skeleton, killing at least 35 passengers and leaving over 100 others with burn injuries. The authorities last night could not say how many passengers were still missing. This indicates that the number of casualties is likely to rise.
Besides, nearly two dozen passengers with severe burns are being treated at different hospitals in Dhaka and Barishal.
Many of those onboard jumped into the river as the fire raged for about three hours.
The Daily Star correspondents on the bank of the Sugandha met family members desperately looking for at least a dozen of missing people yesterday evening.
“Thirty-five bodies have been recovered,” Deputy Commissioner Md Zohor Ali of Jhalakathi told yesterday evening. Only four of them could be identified, he said.
Fire service officials could not ascertain the exact reason of the blaze, but survivors said the fire originated in the engine room and soon engulfed the vessel as barrels of fuel were kept over a major portion in the lower deck.
As the fire kept burning, the strong river current took the launch to Diakul area of Jhalakathi.
“Sometimes, the flames could be seen coming out of the exhaust pipe which generated immense heat in the surrounding areas,” said Shamim, 16, a passenger, who was on the roof.
“Suddenly, I heard a blast and flames all around,” said Shamim, a madrasa student in Narayanganj, who along with brother was going to his village in Barguna.
He jumped into the river and was fortunate to find his brother. Shamim is now admitted at Barishal Sher-E-Bangla Medical College Hospital (SBMCH).
Saidur Rahman, one of the survivors, said, “I smelt something burning and came out of the VIP cabin and saw fire. Me, my wife and brother-in-law then dived in the cold water and swam to the bank.”
Locals said they saw the hellish blaze of the launch even three hours after it caught fire.
Elias, an employee of the toll plaza on Gabkhan Channel, said hearing screams around 2:10am, he and several others left with eight engine boats and rescued over 100 people.
Barishal Divisional Commission Md Saiful Hasan Badol said the master of the vessel might have been unskilled.
Barishal River Port official Mostafizur Rahman said the launch had the capacity to carry 650 passengers.
Kamal Uddin Bhuiyan, deputy director of Barishal Division Fire Service and Civil Defence, said the firefighters reached the scene at 3:28am, but didn’t find any employees of the launch.
“We found bodies in the cabins. It seems the fire originated from the engine room,” he said.
Fifteen fire engines doused the fire at 5:20 am.
At least eight passengers suffered over 60 percent burns while eight to 10 others suffered burns in their tracheas. At least 10 of the severely wounded passengers were taken to Dhaka for treatment.
Firefighters recovered 31 burnt bodies from the launch.
Coast guards found six other bodies floating in the river. It appeared that they drowned after they jumped off the launch.
Seventy-two injured passengers were rescued from the launch by firefighters, coast guards, locals and police. Of the injured, 70 were admitted to Barishal Sher-E-Bangla Medical College Hospital, said the hospital director Saiful Islam.
“A 50-member special team of doctors and nurses is on its way to join us from the Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery in Dhaka,” he added.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed the authorities concerned to ensure proper treatment of the injured.
Now in the Maldives on a state visit, she prayed for the eternal peace of the departed souls and quick recovery of the injured.
State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told reporters that he heard the launch had fitness clearance. A seven-member committee has been formed to investigate the incident, he added.
Khalid Mahmud told reporters at SBMCH that the government will provide Tk 1.5 lakh for each of the dead and Tk. 50,000 for each injured person.