At least 39 people have died and 70 injured when a packed ferry caught fire in southern Bangladesh, according to officials, in the latest maritime tragedy to hit the impoverished low-lying nation.
The incident happened early on Friday near the southern rural town of Jhalokati, 250km (155 miles) south of the capital, Dhaka. The vessel was carrying about 500 people. Many passengers leapt from the vessel into cold waters to escape the blaze.
It took 15 fire engines two hours to control the fire and another eight to cool down the vessel, according to fire officer Kamal Uddin Bhuiyan, who led the rescue operation. Afterward, the blackened hull of the ferry sat anchored at the river’s edge. Many anxious relatives gathered on the banks, while divers continued to search the waters.
The blaze broke out around 3 a.m. on the MV Avijan-10, which was carrying 800 passengers, many of whom were traveling to visit family and friends for the weekend, officials said.
“I was sleeping on the deck and woke up hearing screams and a loud noise,” survivor Anisur Rahman told reporters, adding that he saw smoke coming from the back of the ferry. “I jumped into the freezing water of the river in the thick fog, like many other passengers, and swam to the riverbank.”
Police officer Moinul Haque said rescuers recovered 37 bodies from the river, while two people died from burn injuries on the way to the hospital. All of the 70 injured were hospitalised, including some with severe burns.
Ferries are a leading means of transportation in Bangladesh, which is crisscrossed by about 130 rivers, and accidents involving the vessels are common, often blamed on overcrowding or lax safety rules.
Bhuiyan said the fire may have started in the engine room. The government set up two committees to investigate the blaze and ordered them to report their findings in three days.
The accident was the latest in a string of similar incidents in the delta country criss-crossed by rivers.
Experts in the country of 170 million people blame poor maintenance, lax safety standards at shipyards and overcrowding.
Fires are also a regular source of tragedy. In July, 52 people perished in a blaze in a food and beverage factory in Rupganj, an industrial town outside Dhaka.
At least 70 people died in February 2019 when fire tore through Dhaka apartments where chemicals were illegally stored.
In August at least 21 people were killed when a boat packed with passengers and a sand-laden cargo ship collided in a lake in eastern Bangladesh.
The boat was reportedly carrying some 60 passengers when the cargo ship’s steel bow slammed into the other vessel near the town of Bijoynagar.
Divers had to scour for more bodies in the murky muddy waters after the cargo ship’s steel tip and the boat collided, causing the passenger vessel to capsize.
In April and May, 54 were killed in two separate accidents.
Vessels transporting sand sit low in the water and can be hard to see in choppy conditions, particularly in poor lighting.
In June last year, a ferry sank in Dhaka after it was hit from behind by another ferry, killing at least 32 people.
In February 2015, at least 78 people died when an overcrowded ship collided with a cargo vessel.