More than a hundred people are feared dead as an overcrowded launch, buffeted by strong waves in the Padma river, sank near Lauhajang upazila of Munshiganj yesterday.
Double-decker Pinak-6 with around 200 people on board was on its way to Mawa Ghat from Kawrakandi terminal, and sank in the middle of the mighty river around 11:00am.
Rescuers found it hard to carry out the salvage operation due to strong currents.
The disaster struck less than two and a half months after a launch capsized in the Meghna river in Munshiganj, leaving at least 55 people dead.
The information centre set up by the district administration at Mawa Ghat told The Daily Star last night that at least 120 people were still missing.
The local administration could not confirm how many people had managed to swim ashore. But locals, who took part in the rescue operation, said 50 to 60 passengers had made it to the shore. Most of them were returning to Dhaka after celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr at their village homes.
The launch sank amid high winds in the choppy waters where the depth of the river is around 90 feet, said the divers involved in the rescue operation.
A private TV station broadcast video footage of the sinking of the vessel. The rear part of the vessel began sinking first, and it then tilted to the left side before going down in the river. It all happened within minutes.
The footage was recorded with a cell phone of an unidentified person.
Another launch, “Prince of Medina”, was passing by at the time of the incident. One of its passengers, Rubel, said, "I saw the launch [Pinak-6] going down and its ill-fated passengers jumping into the water."
An official of the Department of Shipping said the launch had a capacity of 85 people. But, according to survivors, there were at least 200 passengers on board.
Mohiuddin Ahmed, BIWTA port officer at Mawa Ghat, said it was not possible to say exactly how many passengers were on board.
"But from the size of the launch, it seems the number should not be more than 200," he said.
The video footage broadcast on TV channels showed that there were no passengers on the roof of the launch.
Wishing anonymity, an official of the Department of Shipping said the vessel had been plying without fitness certificate for the last three months. Its fitness certificate, which was issued last year, expired in April this year.
Pinak-6 left Kawrakandi around 9:30am. And it usually takes one and a half hours to reach Mawa Ghat from there.
Rescuers could not locate the launch till 8:00pm due to strong currents in the river. Moreover, the operation was disrupted by rain.
Immediately after the accident, locals with around 20 speedboats and trawlers rushed to the scene and started rescuing people. Divers of fire service and civil defence and Bangladesh Coast Guard joined them later.
The BIWTA, police, coast guards, fire service and Munshiganj administration are jointly conducting the salvage operation.
Two of the female passengers, who were rescued around 11:30am, died about 20 minutes later. One of them was identified as Nusrat Jahan Hira, 22, from Madaripur, while the identity of the other could not be known.
One of the survivors, Nayan, who works at a private firm in the capital, said moments before the incident, he was packing his things, thinking that the launch would reach the destination in 15 minutes.
"Suddenly, a massive wave hit the launch at the back, and water started spilling into the engine room," he told The Daily Star.
As the rear part of the vessel started going down, its front part rose slightly. It then tilted towards the left side and sank, he added.
Sensing danger, he jumped into the river and tried to float with his bag. He was rescued by locals.
"I saw the launch sink within a few minutes. Only God knows the fate of the others who were inside the hull," said Nayan from Shariatpur.
According to Nayan, many women and children were among the passengers. Those who were beside the window and on the deck managed to jump into the river, said Nayan, who was standing on the deck.
Divers said the salvage operation was being disrupted by strong currents.
"It was difficult to carry out the rescue operation, as we could not even control our boat in the middle of the river. We have brought necessary equipment, and are trying our best to locate the launch," said Ashraful Alam, a diver of the Coast Guard.
Abdus Salam, director (finance and administration) of Fire Service, said they tried to locate the sunken vessel with a rope tied to a heavy object. "But the rope tore at noon. We have again resumed the search with a new rope."
As the news of the accident spread, hundreds of people, including family members of missing passengers, thronged the river bank. They along with the traumatised survivors frantically searched for their loved ones.
Many of them expressed frustration over slow pace of the rescue operation.
"Where have you gone ... where …?" wailed Rekha from Faridpur, who was frantically looking for her three siblings, a sister-in-law, and their three children.
Mohsin Ali, also from Faridpur, was unhappy with the pace of the rescue operation.
"I have doubts about the rescue capability of the government agencies. They could not find the launch in daylight, and I don't know what they can do at night," said Mohsin whose brother and sister-in-law were missing.
Salvage vessel Rustom arrived at the spot around 9:30pm, and another rescue vessel, Nirbhik, left Chandpur for the scene in the evening.
Earlier, BIWTA tug boat Tista tried to locate the sunken launch with echo sounder, but failed.
Meanwhile, two committees were formed to probe the incident.
The Department of Shipping formed a four-member body, led by Engineer and Ship Surveyor Nazmul Haque Pradhan, to find out the cause of the accident. The committee was asked to submit its report in seven working days.
The shipping ministry formed another seven-member committee headed by its joint secretary Nurur Rahman. The committee will submit its report in 10 working days.
Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan, Communications Minister Obaidul Quader and local lawmaker Mrinal Kanti Das visited the spot.
The disaster management and relief ministry last night announced a sum of Tk 20,000 for the burial of each victim.