India ferry capsizes; 103 dead, 100 missing

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, May 1, 2012

BURABURI, India — Rescuers on Tuesday had recovered 103 bodies from a turbulent northeastern river after a heavily packed ferry capsized, saying they feared that dozens of others had been swept by the current to neighboring Bangladesh.

The overloaded ferry overturned and broke into two pieces in stormy weather late Monday. About 100 people were still missing Tuesday evening.

Abdul Mazid, a local villager, was among grieving relatives and survivors gathered on the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Assam state.

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He had rushed there soon after the boat ferrying about 350 people — including his sister — capsized. Some passengers swam to safety or were rescued by villagers, but Mazid was still waiting in silence on the crowded river bank for news of his sister 24 hours later.

Rescuers said they feared that the swift-moving currents had carried dozens of bodies downstream into neighboring Bangladesh.

The ferry was a daily service that connected several small riverside villages and islands to the main district town.

Survivors told television channels how the ferry had been packed tight with passengers and cargo, with about 150 people riding on the ferry’s roof.

Hasnat Ali said that he had been on the roof as the vessel headed to shore to dock when a storm hit. The ferry was tossed about and many of those sitting with him were thrown off. Some managed to swim to shore before the ferry was dashed to pieces, he said.

Ali managed to cling to a log and was later rescued by local villagers, he said.

The accident occurred near Fakiragram village in west Dhubri district, about 350 kilometers (215 miles) west of the state capital, Gauhati, and close to where the Brahmaputra River enters Bangladesh.

The area is dotted with riverside settlements and islands, and boats are the most common mode of transport. Most ferries are poorly built and often overcrowded, with little regard for safety regulations.

Deep sea divers and disaster rescue soldiers worked through the night to help survivors to shore and retrieve bodies from the river.

By Tuesday morning, army divers and rescue workers had pulled out 103 bodies. “No more bodies have been recovered. It’s quite possible strong currents have swept some bodies inside Bangladesh,” said Mohan Lal, a senior officer of the Border Security Force, who is supervising rescue efforts.

Soldiers and members of India’s disaster response team hauled the remains of the ferry from the river using ropes tied to two tractors. Lal said that they managed to lift the wreckage enough to be sure no bodies were trapped inside.

Jishnu Baruah, the home commissioner of Assam state, said the government had ordered an investigation into the accident and asked investigators to inspect the condition of the boats operating in the area and to enforce strict adherence to safety standards.

Indian authorities have sought the help of their Bangladeshi counterparts to locate bodies that may have been swept away by the river’s fast current.