Bangladeshi Ferry's Owners Run From the Law After Fatal Fire

bangladesh ferry fire
Overnight ferry ablaze in Bangladesh

Published Dec 27, 2021 8:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

Seven shipowners and senior officers connected to the ferry Abhijan-10 (Expedition-10) are on the run after a deadly fire broke out aboard the vessel on Friday night, according to local media. One owner has already been arrested in connection with the disaster, and the other three are wanted by the police, along with four previous captains.

Survivors told media that the fire broke out while passengers were sleeping, and that the smoke suffocated many of the victims. Others died after jumping over the side. All told, the disaster killed 39 people and left about 100 more injured. The search for 29 missing passengers continues, and the death toll could potentially rise. 

The owners are wanted for their role in several alleged deficiencies that may have contributed to the death toll. According to Bangladeshi officials, the ferry was carrying at least 280 more passengers than permitted under its operating license - about 40 percent over rated capacity - at the time of the fire. In addition, a police official told AFP that the investigation is looking into passengers' claims that there were not enough fire extinguishers or life jackets on board. The inquiry will also examine whether the crew's response to the fire was timely. 

"We spoke to the survivors and they said the driver of the ferry kept the vessel moving for nearly an hour after its engine room caught fire," marine police officer Mahbubur Rahman told AFP. "Had they stopped the ferry and anchored immediately, it could have saved all these valuable lives."

If caught, tried and convicted, the vessel's owners and captains could face up to $5,800 in fines each and a maximum prison sentence of up to five years. 

Fatal ferry accidents are a common occurrence in Bangladesh. On the nation's busy inland waterways, passenger vessels play a major role in everyday transportation, and the safety culture on the waterfront is relatively relaxed. Overloading is a frequently-cited contributing factor in the worst accidents, and the loss of unregistered passengers often makes the true death toll difficult to estimate.

In August, at least 21 people were killed when a ferry struck a sand barge near Bijoynagar, Bangladesh. The force of the collision caused the ferry to capsize, throwing the 50-60 passengers into the water. In May, a passenger speedboat traveling from Munshiganj to Madaripur struck a sand barge, killing at least 26 and wounding five. Five more were believed missing. 

In April, a collision between a ferry and a passing cargo ship killed at least 27 people in Dhaka, with at least seven more missing. In June 2020, 32 people were killed when the ferry Morning Bird was struck from behind by another vessel as she was leaving the busy Sadarghat terminal on the Buriganga River.