A novice was allegedly at the helm moving the Moyur-2 astern when the vessel slammed into a smaller launch, causing it to sink and drown at least 32 people in the Buriganga at the capital's Shyambazar yesterday.
Many others are still feared missing.
In footage possibly from a security camera, Moyur-2 was seen moving in reverse ramming the ill-fated Morning Bird, making it capsize with over 50 people onboard.
It did not take more than a few seconds.
"It was a human error and gross negligence on the part of the Moyur-2," said Manjurul Kabir, chief engineer and ship surveyor at the Shipping Department.
Officials said the entire crew managed to flee the scene.
"The accident might not have happened if the master were at the helm. We learnt that the person, who was there at that time, was a novice," Kabir said.
Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority seized the Moyur-2.
This has been the first major accident in a river after February 2015 when at least 71 people drowned as a launch capsized after being hit by a cargo vessel in the Padma in Manikganj.
Yesterday's tragedy struck around 9:30am when the river was absolutely calm. The ill-fated launch was going to Sadarghat terminal with passengers mostly from Munshiganj.
Boatmen from the banks rushed in to help those who were thrown overboard and afloat, witnesses said.
The rescuers and divers arrived a little later and began to recover the bodies. All the victims were passengers of the Morning Bird.
Of the victims, 22 were men, seven women and three children. Family members identified 31 of the bodies. One body remained unclaimed, said Fazikul Islam, sub-inspector at Dakkhin Keraniganj Police Station.
The navy, coast guard, fire service, and the BIWTA officials continued the rescue operation until late last night.
The operation stumbled a little after a rescue vessel failed to reach the spot because of the Postagola bridge.
BIWTA Chairman Commodore Golam Sadeq said they were carrying out the rescue operation finding an alternative to the vessel.
He said he learnt that 45 passengers got onboard the launch in Munshiganj, from where it started the journey, and a few others got onboard at several other stoppages.
"We recovered 32 bodies and 10 to 15 people swam ashore. So we don't think the number of missing people would be much," he told this newspaper.
BIWTA diver Mohammad Saidul said the launch was upside down at the bottom of the river, around 55 feet below the surface. A part of it had sunk in the mud and the bodies were recovered from inside the launch.
"It is very dark there…. There is a chance there might be more bodies in it," he said, adding that divers tied the launch with a rope to keep it stationary until the rescue vessel arrived.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Morning Bird operated between Kathpotti of Munshiganj and Dhaka.
On the other hand, the Moyur-2 operates between Chandpur and Dhaka. It was moored at a dockyard across the Sadarghat terminal. It was scheduled to leave for Chandpur at 12:30pm.
As the Morning Bird was approaching Sadarghat terminal, the Moyur-2 hit it while astern at considerable speed, apparently to reach terminal and rammed the Morning Brid, Alamgir Kabir, joint director of BIWTA, said.
The footage was shown on several TVs.
Masud Hossain, a survivor, said he was travelling from Munshigangj with his two uncles.
"As I realised something bad had happened, I called my uncle... The launch capsized. It didn't take more than five seconds.
"I thought I was going to die today… I somehow managed to open the window of the cabin and came out. There was no way to look for my uncle," Masud said.
He said the rescuers found the body of his uncle Afzal Sheikh, but his other uncle Bachchu Sheikh was still missing.
Masud said he lives in Munshiganj and comes to Dhaka by launch every day for his business in Islampur.
His uncles went to visit his family in Munshiganj and were returning to Dhaka yesterday. Masud said there were more than 100 passengers onboard and around 50 of them had swam ashore.
Popy Begum was seen sobbing as her son Ashique, 18, a mechanic of the launch, remained traceless. "My son left our house on Sunday night after dinner. He was supposed to return home, but I can't find him anywhere."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed deep shock at the loss of lives, reports BSS.
CLEARANCE RAISES EYEBROWS
Shipping Department's Chief Engineer Manjurul Kabir said the Morning Bird built in 2012 has capacity to carry 90 passengers at day time and 60 at night.
Although both launches had fitness certificates, the National Committee to Protect Shipping, Roads and Railways said the Morning Bird had structural flaws.
Ashis Kumar Dey, general secretary of the organisation, said following a media report about faulty vessels last year, they enquired about those launches and found that the Morning Bird had structural faults.
"In such a situation, the authorities carry out a special survey and ask the launch owner for special docking. But that had not happened here," he told The Daily Star yesterday.
Meanwhile, State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said that the incident seemed preplanned.
"Today's incident is totally different from other incidents. I have seen the CCTV footage... it appears to me that it was carried out intentionally. It seemed to be a murder," he told reporters after visiting the spot around 3:30pm.
Khalid Mahmud said his ministry has formed a seven-member probe committee led by a joint secretary. The committee was asked to submit a report within a week.
"We will take necessary legal action following the investigation," he said.
The minister said officials will provide Tk 10,000 to each family for burial and Tk 1.5 lakh for welfare.
The BIWTA has formed a four-member committee led by its Joint-director Zainul Abedin and asked it to submit a report in three days.
Zainul said, "We asked owners and staffers of both launches to appear before us tomorrow."