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Monday, 6 May, 2002, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Eyewitness: Midnight ferry tragedy
Cranes lift the ferry from the water on Monday morning
The raising of the ferry revealed the disaster's scale
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By Moazzem Hossain
BBC correspondent in Chandpur, Bangladesh

Habibullah was sitting on a platform at a river station in Chandpur, staring at two huge cranes floating in the River Meghna over the sunken ferry.

He was one of the few fortunate passengers who managed to survive the disaster on Friday night.

I can't go away without my friend - I am still hoping that he is alive and will return soon

When the double-decker ferry suddenly capsized in a storm around midnight, Habibullah found himself in deep water with nearly 400 other passengers, all gasping for breath and screaming for help.

Many of them were women and children.

After swimming for about an hour in the dark, Habibullah was picked up by a fishing boat.

Zulekha Begum, right, wails for her dead daughter
A woman, right, hears her daughter has died
Since then he has been waiting on the river bank, hoping to find the friend who was with him on that fateful night.

"I can't go away without my friend, I am still hoping that he is alive, and will return soon," he told the BBC in tears.

Like Habibullah, hundreds of people have gathered on the banks of the Meghna near the small village of Shatnal, where the ferry went down.

Anxious crowds

When I got there on Sunday afternoon, hundreds of rescue workers were desperately searching for corpses floating in the river.

By that time, nine dead had already been found, and the bloated corpses were lined up on the muddy river bank.

Every time a body is recovered, hundreds of people gather around it, trying to find any resemblance with their missing relatives.

The air of the River Meghna was heavy with the strong smell of the rotten corpses. I just couldn't bear it

Mir Nasiruddin Ujjal,
Desperate attempts to salvage the ferry have been hampered by bad weather.

Every time divers tried on Sunday to attach a rope to the vessel, which lay submerged in 20 metres of water, heavy currents swept them away.

Throughout the day, crews in two huge floating cranes struggled with driving wind and rain, trying to keep their vessels over the sunken ferry.

By evening they had been able to drag the ferry to the eastern bank of the river.

But as darkness fell, they stopped the rescue operation for the day.

Rising death toll

The real extent of this disaster began to unfold when the 100-tonne ferry was finally raised by two huge cranes at 0800 (local time) on Monday morning.

Diver prepares to search for people lost in the disaster
Rescuers have worked in appalling weather
When the overturned vessel was put upright again, scores of corpses could be seen floating around it.

Rescue workers also recovered bodies from the two decks of the ferry.

With every hour that passed, the body count rose.

By 1000, it was 120. By noon, it had passed 150.

Soon after, more then 200 bodies lay on the banks of the Meghna.

Bodies 'bloated'

Mir Nasiruddin Ujjal, a local journalist who has covered many ferry disasters in the Meghna, said he had never seen so many bodies in his life.

"There were bodies all around me, on the shores, in ferries, in small country boats," he told the BBC.

Every time there is an accident, they say these things - but the government has actually done nothing to make our journey safe

Ferry passenger
"Most of the bodies were bloated and beyond recognition.

"The air of the River Meghna was heavy with the strong smell of the rotten corpses. I just couldn't bear it."

Along the banks of the river there were tragic scenes.

Every time a body was identified, relatives burst into tears.

But most of the bodies could not be identified, and the authorities could not decide what to do with the hundreds of decaying corpses.

They finally decided to send the bodies on to Patuakhali, which is believed to be the destination of most of the passengers travelling on the ill-fated ferry.

Authorities blamed

In the meantime, the shipping authorities talk of an investigation, and swear they will bring to book the culprits whose negligence might have caused this human tragedy.

But few people have much faith in what the authorities are saying.

Monowara Begum, a passenger on a ferry to Chandpur, said: "Every time there is an accident, they say these things.

"But the government has actually done nothing to make our journey safe."

See also:

03 Jan 01 | South Asia
Bangladesh's risky waterways
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bangladesh
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