As a fisherman, Chand Mian had weathered many a storm. So he knew the 80mph wind that hit 'MV Panch Bhai' on Monday evening would pass. But then, he had no idea the double-decker boat would hit a deceptive concrete structure put up to check erosion.
“We were barely 25ft from the Medartari Ghat (ferry point on river Brahmaputra in western Assam’s Dhubri district bordering Bangladesh) when the cyclonic storm began tossing the boat. The boatman struggled to drop anchor as the vessel hit something, broke into three parts and sank,” Mian, 43, said.
The eight-tonne motorized ferry, reportedly carrying 450-500 passengers against a normal capacity of 220-250, would perhaps have escaped without a scratch had it not veered a bit off course to rescue the passengers of two country boat.
“We rescued five passengers of those two boats while five went missing,” Mian said.
The five country boat passengers were perhaps destined to die , the fisherman said.
“They are among those missing, having barely survived five-six minutes after being rescued,” he said.
While Mian claimed the boat had 400 people, most of them ‘trapped’ in the lower deck, petty trader Taleb Ali, 42, estimated 500.
“They hardly had time to react while I and a few others on the upper deck swam to safety,” he said, adding 70-80 people made it safely to the bank.
“It is almost as if I have been reborn,” Ali said, adding it was usual for boats “in these parts” to be overloaded."Apart from passengers, the boats also carry goods making them heavier than they ought to be."
However, the local motorised boat owners’ association said ‘MV Paanch Bhai’ had at most 220 passengers.
“Counting the one that sank, there are 14 registered boats weighing 8-40 tonnes with capacity to carry 200-700 passengers comfortably. As per the tickets sold at Dhubri Ghat, there were 207 passengers on board,” association secretary Ghulam Mustafa told HT.
The boat was sailing from Dhubri on the north bank of Brahmaputra to Medartari, a three-hour trip.
Mustafa claimed overloading was a problem with smaller boats.
“We know the perils. The ill-fated boat was being steered by the owner Alhaj Syed Ali’s 25-year-old son Golapuddin, who is missing. Ali is a responsible member of our association, and it is cruel to assume he would push his own son into the jaws of death,” he said.