At least 103 people are dead and many more are missing after an overloaded ferry capsizes in the midst of a heavy storm on one of India’s largest rivers.
In an accident described as one of the worst in recent memory to hit the north east region of India, the ferry, which was carrying around 350 people, tipped over and sank during the night as it travelled along the Brahmaputra River.
Army divers and rescue workers battled heavy winds and rain to pull 103 bodies out of the river throughout the night.
At least 100 people are still missing, and another 100 swam to safety or were rescued by villagers living nearby. But with a lack of lifeboats or safety belts, hopes of recovering the missing people were fading.
The boat was mainly carrying local farmers and their families, many of whom had clambered on to the roof due to a lack of seating space. A storm hit as the ferry headed towards the shore to dock, near Fakiragram village, in the west Dhubri district of Assam.
Witnesses described how they watched helplessly as ferry passengers were swept downstream in the strong currents. Arun Kalita, 30, a road construction worker who swam to safety, said: “I could hear many people screaming for God’s help, but it was a turbulent river and the storm was very severe. No one could come and rescue them.”
Hasnat Ali, a passenger on the boat, told local television that he was one of around 150 on the roof when the accident began to unfold. The boat was tossed about, he said, and people on the roof were thrown off. Many of them managed to swim to shore before the ferry was wrecked.
Ali said that he managed to cling to a log until he was rescued by local villagers.
Another survivor, Taleb Ali, 35, said passengers had begged the skipper to anchor the ferry at a sandbar when the storm hit midstream, but he refused.
“Then the storm became more intense and the boat split into two parts before sinking,” he said.
Assam state police chief, JN Choudhury, said passengers travelling on the top level had been saved. But he added that rescue efforts had been hampered by the continuing bad weather.
Strong winds had uprooted trees, blocking roads leading to the disaster site, and preventing some rescue teams from reaching the area.
The ferry had been on its way from Dhubri to Fakirganj, in Assam.
India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, described the sinking as a “tragedy”. He said he was “shocked and grieved to know about the loss of lives”, adding that he had given instructions “for all possible assistance to the government of Assam in relief operations”.
Similar disasters have occurred in the region before. In October 2010, at least 79 Muslim pilgrims drowned when an overcrowded boat carrying 150 people sank in the eastern state of West Bengal.
In March, 138 people died in neighbouring Bangladesh when an overloaded ferry carrying 200 people sank in the Meghna River, south east of the capital, Dhaka.