GUWAHATI, India, Apr 30 – An overcrowded river ferry broke in two and sank in northeast India during a severe storm on Monday, leaving at least 68 people dead and more than 130 missing, police said.
Some 150 people were either rescued or swam to safety after the double-decker ferry, whose passengers included women and children, sank in the fast-flowing Brahmaputra river in Assam state.
Rescuers, including army units, rushed to the scene in a desperate bid to find survivors but their efforts were hampered by high winds, torrential rains and darkness.
Rahul Karmakar, who witnessed the sinking, told AFP: “I could see people being swept away as the river current was very strong.”
He added that “chances of survival seem to be remote” in the river, swollen by heavy rains.
The death toll from the ferry sinking could be one of the worst of recent years in South Asia, where such disasters are common due to lax safety standards and overloading.
Local fishermen who live with their families in tiny hamlets stretching along the Brahmaputra river battled to find survivors as night fell.
Strong winds had uprooted trees, blocking roads leading to the disaster site and preventing some rescue teams from reaching the area, said officials in Assam’s main commercial city Guwahati.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the sinking a “tragedy” and said he had pledged all possible assistance to the state government in the search.
“There were about 350 people on board when a storm split the steamer into two,” Assam state police chief J.N. Choudhury told AFP.
Local police officer A. Dass said rescuers had recovered the bodies of 68 victims, leaving around 132 missing.
The boat was on its way from Dhubri to the adjoining district of Fakirganj when the accident occurred in late afternoon, police said. Dhubri is some 300 kilometres (186 miles) from Guwahati.
More rain was forecast for Tuesday for the area.
Assam state chief minister Tarun Gogoi said the Indian prime minister had telephoned him and promised to rush disaster response units from New Delhi and other locations.
“Army, Border Security Force and other rescue teams with mechanised boats have moved to the site but nightfall and bad weather are hampering rescue efforts,” Gogoi told AFP.
Singh said in a statement that he was “shocked and grieved to know about the loss of lives.”
He said that he had given instructions “for all possible assistance to the government of Assam in relief operations and also for assistance from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund to the families of the deceased”.
In one of the last major ferry disasters in India, at least 79 Muslim pilgrims drowned when an overcrowded boat carrying 150 people sank in the eastern state of West Bengal in October 2010.
In March this year, some 138 people died in neighbouring Bangladesh when an overloaded ferry carrying 200 people sank in the Meghna river southeast of the capital Dhaka.