Such a grave tragedy might have been avoided if MV Abhijan-10 had rushed to shore immediately upon detection of a fire. In that case everyone could have survived. That is the view of those who did survive yesterday's inferno on the vessel.
The launch crossed the Barishal port at 2 am. Exactly 20-25 minutes later, while crossing the Dapdapia point of Sugandha River, a passenger Rashed of Barguna, saw a fire starting in the engine room.
Rashed said, “I was sitting next to the engine room as the launch was loaded with passengers. I saw a fire originating in the engine room right after crossing Dapdapia point.”
However, the launch continues to move in this state. At the same time the staff were trying to extinguish it. After moving like this for about 40-45 minutes, the fire suddenly spread throughout the whole launch.
In this regard, Barishal Divisional Commissioner Saiful Ahsan Badal said, "The inefficiency of the sailor can be considered as a major crime in this case. If the launch had been stopped without taking any risk after the fire broke out, perhaps such a big tragedy would not have happened.”
Passengers claim fire originated in engine room
Another passenger, Kalu Mia, a resident of Dhalua area of Barguna, who was undergoing treatment at Sher-e-bangla Medical College and Hospital (SBMCH), said, "There were seven barrels of fuel next to the engine room. When they explode in the heat of the fire, the fire spread throughout the entire launch. The fire was so horrific that almost all the passengers in the third floor cabin could not get out.”
The gates of the launch narrowed as the steel structure increased due to intense heat. As a result, the passengers could not jump into the river, said Kalu Mia.
"Ever since the launch left Dhaka Sadar Ghat on Thursday afternoon, there has been a strange sound from the launch engine. Usually, I have never heard such a sound before in any other launch,” said Kamrul Islam, a regular passenger of that launch.
After that, when the fire broke out following the explosion, there was nothing left for anyone to do, said Kamrul, expressing concern that all cabin passengers of 3rd floor were burnt to death.
Number of missing passengers yet to be known
At the time of the fire incident, how many passengers were on ‘Abhijan-10’ launch is still unknown.
However, the launch owner Hum Jalal Sheikh said there were 300-350 passengers in the launch.
SM Azgar Ali, joint director of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) of Barishal, also claimed that the launch left Dhaka for Barguna with about 310 passengers.
Meanwhile, the passengers who survived the launch fire, said there were more than 1,500 passengers in the launch.
Although about 70 men and women were admitted to SBMCH and 37 bodies were recovered (till 4 pm on Friday), it is not yet clear what happened to the rest of the passengers on the launch.
In Jhalakathi, the bodies of many passengers were recovered from the gutted launch anchored on the banks of Sugandha river. However, 33 bodies couldn’t be identified and sent to Jhalakathi Sadar Hospital morgue. Evidence that many people are missing is found in the cries and wails of relatives.
Dulal Sardar, a resident of Dhalua area of Barguna, said, “I got the news of the accident through a phone call from my village home in the morning. Also, I found out that six out of my nine relatives, including two children, at the launch are missing.”
Ali Mohammad, a relative of another victim, said, "There were four relatives of mine in the launch. Two people were rescued with burn injuries but the other two were not found.”
Shahjalal Hawlader of Patharghata, who came to Barishal in search of 13-year-old Rakibul, who left Narayanganj for Barguna in the launch, said, “I have come to Barishal as I didn’t find Rakibul in Jhalokathi.”
Many more such launch passengers have been reported missing by their relatives who came to Jhalakathi and Barishal in search of them.
Situation in SBMCH
Since Friday morning, Sher-e-Bangla Medical College and Hospital (SBMCH) has received a number of injured people. Moniruzzaman Shahin, the assistant director at SBMCH, said, "We admitted around 66 patients by 8am."
"Of the 66 with up to 50% burns, 18 are women," said Dr Moniruzzaman. "Three women and four men with life-threatening burns have been referred to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital as we've no dedicated burn unit."
However, UNB Barishal correspondent reported that two of the injured succumbed to burn injuries on the way to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital.
Burn patients have suffered severely as the burn unit has remained closed for the last seven months. Patients are being forced to seek medical treatment in the surgery ward of SBMCH, said Rabiul Islam, a nurse of SBMCH.
Director Dr HM Saiful Islam said, "Patients with burn injuries are being provided treatment in the surgery ward." If the patient's condition is critical, they are being sent to Dhaka. Moreover, physicians from Dhaka were decided to come Barishal for the treatment of burn patients.
Meanwhile, RAB Director General Chowdhury Abdullah Al-Mamun visited Sher-e-Bangla Medical College (SBMCH) on Friday to see the injured in the ‘Avijan-10’ launch fire at Jhalokathi.
Under the direction of RAB DG, a helicopter reached Barishal and flew two critically injured to Dhaka for better treatment, said Imran Khan, ASP (media) of RAB Headquarters.
Visit of State Minister for Shipping at SBMCH
The government on Friday announced Tk 1.5 lakh to be provided to the family of each deceased in the fire on the ‘Abhijan-10’ launch.
Besides, the arrangement of the treatment for injured will be ensured, State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said this while visiting the injured in the launch fire at SBMCH on Friday noon.
No mechanical faults in ‘Abhijan-10’ launch
Although almost all the launch passengers who survived the accident claimed that the fire started from the engine room, the owner of the launch Hum Jalal Sheikh refused to accept it.
He claimed that the engine was installed at the launch only a month ago. After installing the engine, four round trips on Dhaka-Barisal route were made.
In response to a question about mechanical faults, Jalal said that the launch had at least 21 fire extinguishers, but the fire spread so fast that there was no time to use them.
Claiming that there was no mechanical fault in the launch, he said that if the engine caught fire, the fire would never spread to the whole ship. The fire spread from the second floor to the engine and the cabin following an explosion.
Meanwhile, the Shipping Ministry has formed a seven-member committee to probe the fire. The ministry panel has been asked to submit its report within three days.
Joint secretary of the Shipping Ministry Tofayel Ahmed has been made the probe panel's convener, while deputy secretary Aminur Rahman will act as its member secretary, said Senior Information Officer of the Shipping Ministry Md Jahangir Alam Khan.
At least 39 people were charred to death and 72 others injured in a major fire that ripped through a launch carrying some 800 passengers from Dhaka to Barguna in the early hours of Friday.
The blaze on board the three-storey Avijan-10 in the middle of the Sugandha River off the coast of Jhalokati district's Sadar upazila, 250kms south of Dhaka, around 3am. Within five to 10 minutes, the flames engulfed the vessel.
Some 15 fire fighter units took nearly two hours to bring the blaze under control, at 5.20am. "The fire was completely doused around 11.30am," said Kamal Uddin, Deputy Director (Barishal division) of Fire Service and Civil Defence.