Disaster Could’ve Been Averted, Bangladesh Ferry-Fire Survivor Says

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Dhaka
2021-12-28
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Disaster Could’ve Been Averted, Bangladesh Ferry-Fire Survivor Says A man consoles a relative who is unable to find his 5-year-old son traveling on a ferry that caught fire, at a government hospital, in Barishal, Bangladesh, Dec. 24, 2021.
AP Photo

Madrassa teacher Lokman Hossain remembers a loud, intermittent banging sound he heard when he and his students boarded the ferry that later burst into flames in one of the most horrific boat disasters in recent memory in Bangladesh.

One of the eight students he was traveling with died in the blaze, which broke out early Dec. 24 aboard the Abhijan-10 as it sailed in the middle of a river in Jhalakathi district, about 275 km (170 miles) south of the capital Dhaka.

“When we were getting on board in Sadarghat [a Dhaka terminal], we could hear a bang on the launch,” Lokman told BenarNews. “But nobody took the unusually loud sound seriously.”

Bangladeshis refer to ferries as launches.

“The launch started the journey. The intensity of the intermittent sound went up as it reached Barishal,” said Lokman, who suffered serious burns and has been undergoing treatment at a hospital in the Barishal district.

“Around 3 a.m. when it reached Jhalakathi, we could see a huge fire,” he said. “The whole launch turned into a mass of flames.”

Hossain said he and seven of the students were able to jump into the water to safety, but one student, whom he identified as Rakib Hossain, was trapped onboard and perished in the inferno.

“If the launch had been checked, people would have survived,” Lokman said.

Friday’s fire has put a spotlight on the safety record of ferries and other forms of public transportation along Bangladesh’s many waterways, on which many people rely on to move around.

During the past decade, about 700 people were killed in more than 200 accidents involving ferries and other vessels used for public transportation, according to a BenarNews review of government records in the wake of the fire. Those grim statistics, in fact, reflected a drop in ferry-related accidents and deaths recorded from 2001 through 2010, records show.

About 2,500 ferries carry passengers along hundreds of miles of rivers throughout the South Asian country.

Two more bodies have been recovered in the aftermath of the latest accident, raising the death toll in the ferry fire to 44, Md. Johar Ali, the commissioner for Jhalakathi district, said on Tuesday.

He also said relatives of 30 people had registered them as missing after the fire.

On Monday, members of the Rapid Action Battalion, a police unit, arrested the ferry’s owner, Hum Jalal Sheikh, a day after arrest warrants were issued for eight people, including the ferry’s captain and crew, Agence France-Presse reported.

Survivors have said the boat had far more passengers than its capacity of more than 400.

Backlogged cases

Only eight out of scores of legal cases filed in the wake of the 200-plus accidents that took place in more than a decade have been resolved in court, BenarNews also discovered in reviewing records.

In 2010, the marine court issued jail terms and fines in three cases; in 2011 and 2012, it handed down prison sentences in a case and an acquittal each year. It issued an acquittal in 2016 as well.

The maximum punishment for such accidents caused by negligence under the Inland Shipping Ordinance of 1976 is five years in jail and a fine, Bellal Hossain, the shipping department’s prosecuting officer, told BenarNews.

A former shipping minister noted that the country has only one court to deal with such offenses.

“The launch accidents and other marine offenses are mainly tried in the lone marine court in Dhaka. The number of judges is very low, so the disposition of the marine cases is slow,” Shajahan Khan told BenarNews.

“I made a proposal to increase the number of marine courts to four. But the proposal has yet to be implemented,” said Khan, a former shipping minister and current member of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Shipping.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh authorities told BenarNews that committees had been established to investigate Friday’s fire and they would release details after those investigations are finished.

“We have formed a committee to investigate the incident. Unless the committee comes up with its findings, we cannot give you death and missing figures,” Md. Delwar Hossain, a joint secretary of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), told BenarNews.

Another official, Debashish Vardhan, a deputy director of the fire service and civil defense department, released preliminary findings about the blaze.

“It seems to us that the fire broke out from the engine room and it spilled at the nearby kitchen fitted with several gas cylinders. But unless we get the probe report, we cannot be certain what caused the fire,” Vardhan told BenarNews.

Vardhan said the fire department committee would submit its findings within 15 days.

Deaths tied to ferry accidents have plagued Bangladesh for decades.

Between 1991 and 2000, 347 people died and another 178 passengers were reported missing in 150 ferry disasters, according to department figures. The figures skyrocketed between 2001 and 2010 when 1,702 people died and 139 were reported missing in 315 disasters.

The number of accidents came down to 143 between 2011 and 2018, with 584 deaths and 102 missing.

In 2019, only three people died and 20 passengers were reported missing in 26 accidents while 81 people died and 12 were reported missing in 32 accidents in 2020.

In April, the ferry ML Rabit Al Hasan sank after colliding with a cargo ship near Dhaka, killing at least 25 people, the Associated Press reported.

‘The hard truth’

Mizanur Rahman, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, said government department-level corruption had led to the recurrence of ferry disasters.

“After every launch tragedy, the BIWTA and other agencies form several committees to find the causes of the accidents. The investigation reports are hardly made public. The people forget the previous launch disasters when another big accident happens,” he told BenarNews. “This is the hard truth.

“The launch owners are moneyed men – they buy everything. The government officials know they cannot stop the operation of an unfit launch by submitting a report against it,” he said.

“So people continue to die in this brutal way as if there is no redress,” he said. “When the issue leaves the public spotlight, the trials are stalled.”

BIWTA’s Hossain rejected those allegations.

“In line with the findings of every ferry disaster, we try our best to implement the recommendations of the committees. As a result, the number of launch accidents have come down gradually,” he told BenarNews.

Despite that claim, a resident of the coastal Lakshmipur district in southern Bangladesh said there were no regulations affecting ferry owners.

“The people are at hostage to the owners. I personally think traveling by these launches is like a ‘death journey,’” Md. Azizur Rahman told BenarNews on Monday.

“I, my wife and two children went to Saint Martin’s Island on Dec. 3. There was a danger signal from the met office, but the owners packed the passengers of two launches onto one dilapidated launch and traveled to Teknaf amid rough sea,” he said, adding, “the passengers were calling out to the almighty until they reached the shore.”

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The Abhijan-10 ferry is anchored along the bank of Sugandha River after it caught fire, leading to the deaths of more than 40 people in Jhalakathi, Bangladesh, Dec. 24, 2021. [Reuters]

Commodore Syed Ariful Islam, a former director general of the department of shipping, said rules for construction of ferries are outdated.

“Twenty years ago, we used to build small-sized ships, both passenger and cargo. Over the years, the size of ships in Bangladesh has grown. So, this rule is not up-to-date,” he told BenarNews.

The government should allow a branch of the international ship classification society to be established so protocols to build safe watercraft can be established, he said.

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