UPDATES DEATH TOLL, NUMBER OF INJURED; CHANGES HEADLINE, DECK, LEDE; ADDS DETAILS, CONDOLENCES MESSAGES BY TURKEY, PAKISTAN; EDITS THROUGHOUT
By Md. Kamruzzaman
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) – At least 37 people have died and 74 others rescued after a fire broke out early Friday on a passenger ferry on the Sugandha River in Bangladesh, according to official sources.
“Until now, we have recovered 37 charred bodies and 74 passengers with burns. Fire doused fully hours ago. But still now our patrolling teams and divers are searching for missing ones in the river,” Brig. Gen. Sajjad Hossain, the director-general of the country's Fire Service and Civil Defense, told Anadolu Agency over the phone.
He added that some of the injured were rescued by local people while many others jumped into the river before the rescue teams reached the spot.
“So, it is not possible to ascertain the exact figure of how many people have been killed or injured as still there are some missing,” Hossain said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, one of the passengers of the ferry who somehow managed to reach land with his wife said over the phone that the fire spread very quickly and many inside the vessel died due to suffocation.
“As the ferry was fully packed with passengers and of them, there were many women, children, and aged commuters and most of them could not come out of the deck,” Hossain Muhammad Al-Muzahid, the administrative head of southern Patharghata coastal area, said.
“I was standing at the side of the launch with my wife and suddenly I saw fire razing out from different sides. Instantly I jumped into the river with my wife. We both know how to swim and somehow managed to reach the land. It was such a terrible incident in my life that I had never seen before,” Muzahid added.
Local sources said the number of dead and injured may rise as many passengers jumped into the river after the fire spread throughout the Ovijan-10 commuter ferry, which is locally called a launch.
Khalilur Rahman, the officer in charge at the Jhalakathi police station, told reporters that there were more than 500 passengers inside the ferry headed to the southern district of Barguna and the ferry started its journey from the capital Dhaka's Sadarghat Launch Terminal Thursday evening.
“Many jumped inside the river and were able to reach land as the fire broke out and rapidly spread,” Rahman added.
The injured passengers have been admitted to local hospitals and clinics on an emergency basis while the most critically injured will be shifted to Dhaka.
“Two probe bodies -- one by the local administration and another by the country's naval force -- have been formed to dig out the causes of the fire,” additional deputy commissioner at the southern district of Jhalakathi Najmul Alam Nobin told Anadolu Agency.
He added that the investigation committees have been directed to file reports within the shortest possible time.
Meanwhile, video footage and photos of the fire that have been viral on social media and widely circulated at different mainstream media show that many dead bodies have been completely decomposed and burned to ashes. Only some burnt skeletons or bones were also seen lying on the deck.
Launches are very popular water commuter ferries in Bangladesh, a riverine country in South Asia, and thousands of people journey by launches every day from Dhaka to the country’s southern regions.
Due to rough weather, incidents of launches sinking are very common in the delta nation of nearly 170 million people. But such deadly fires are very uncommon.
The reason for the fire is still unknown while fire service officials said they would investigate the cause after rescue operations are completed. The fire is widely suspected to have originated from the ferry’s engine.
The latest tragic incident has raised questions about the fitness of water vessels and their maintenance. People have urged the government to conduct a thorough investigation over all water vessels for the safety of tens of thousands of people in the country.
Meanwhile, Turkey's Foreign Ministry in a statement said it is saddened to learn about the losses in the ferry fire in the Jhalokathi town, some 250 km (155 miles) south of Dhaka.
"We wish Allah’s mercy upon those who lost their lives during the fire, extend our heartfelt condolences to their relatives as well as to the friendly people and government of Bangladesh, and wish speedy recovery to the injured," the ministry added.
Pakistan has also expressed condolences to the tragic deaths in the fire in a media statement issued by the Pakistani High Commission in Dhaka.
"Our deepest condolences to the bereaved families and the Government of Bangladesh. At this moment of grief, our thoughts and prayers are with the brotherly people of Bangladesh," the statement noted.
*Jeyhun Aliyev in Ankara contributed to this story