After the unprecedented capsize of a Ro-Ro ferry, the authorities say the vessels are strong enough for services even after expiry while an expert has questioned their argument.
Bangladesh currently has 55 ferries, including 14 Roll on-Roll off or Ro-Ro vessels, which have either built-in or shore-based ramps or ferry slips that allow the cargo to be efficiently rolled on and off the vessel when in port.
Bangladesh imported two Ro-Ro ferries from China besides the eight from Denmark while the remaining four were made locally, according to Nazrul Islam Misha, a deputy director of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation or BIWTC.
Capable of carrying 25 vehicles, the 800-tonne Shah Amanat arrived at Paturia’s pier No. 5 from Rajbari's Daulatdia around 9:30 am with 17 trucks and covered vans, a car and eight motorcycles.
The ferry started tilting when two trucks and passengers disembarked. Rescue vessel Hamza arrived at the scene to pull the ferry, but it was very heavy for the rescue vessel’s capacity. Before the rescue operation was postponed for the night, Hamza pulled out eight trucks.
Divers searched frantically for anyone stuck inside the vessel. No death was reported.
The ferry did not have a lot of passengers in it, but a few drivers, helpers and hawkers, according to witnesses.
“It’s right that the ferry is old. But no Ro-Ro ferry has ever met such an accident,” said Syed Md Tajul Islam, the chairman of BIWTC.
A ferry has an economic life of 30 years while Shah Amanat began providing service more than 35 years ago, according to him.
“But they are very strong. So the (shipping) ministry allowed to use them for 10 additional years.”
SM Ashikuzzaman, a director of BIWTC, said Shah Amanat underwent “trivial repair” in July. “It has no problem in fitness.”
But the authorities cannot extend the lifetime of a vessel in this way, argued Dr Zobair Ibn Awal, an associate professor at the naval architecture and marine engineering department of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
“In marine engineering, we don’t have a recovery term that allows the extension of a ferry’s lifespan by 10 years,” said Dr Zobair, who has been included in a seven-strong BIWTC committee to investigate the accident.
“Usually a ferry is retired after 20 to 25 years of service. It appears that the ferries are very old.”
It was not clear what caused the ferry to sink, but truck drivers and others onboard said they saw the deck being filled with water much before the vessel reached the pier.
“The engine should have stopped and the ferry would have sunken had water entered it. But the tilting indicates water indeed entered the ferry,” said BIWTC Director Ashikuzzaman.
Firoz Kabir, OC of Manikganj’s Shibaloy Police Station, said they believed water entered the ballast tank below the deck through leaks, leading the vessel to tilt.
Truck drivers said they had seen earlier that a ferryman would dock the vessel at a shoal when water entered the deck through leaks, but that did not happen on Wednesday.
It takes about 40 minutes for a ferry to reach Paturia from Daulatdia and the drivers spotted water on the deck midway through the journey.
One of them, Selim, who gave a single name, said he thought the water came through his truck’s radiator, but his helper said water was flowing from one side of the deck to the other.
“What kind of ferry driver he is! He should have docked the ferry at a shoal when the deck leaked. The accident would not have happened if he had not wasted time trying to dock it at the pier,” said another truck driver, Yakub, who also identified himself by a single name.
Shariful Islam, the ferryman, said he did not know how water entered the deck “just before the docking” because he was on the cabin above. He skirted a question whether he had sent a warning signal to the pier.
Nurul Alam, acting chairman of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, said officials found the ferry tilted at the pier after they had been informed about the accident.
BRTC Chairman Tajul said he did not hear anything about a warning signal. Everything will be known after the investigation, he said.
The committee will also investigate whether the officials on duty cleared a fitness checklist properly before allowing the ferry to leave Daulatdia pier. “They cannot evade responsibility.”