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Dhaka Tribune

Jhalakathi launch fire: Probe finds negligence by govt agencies

Panel condemns Department of Shipping and Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority officials for negligence in discharging duties
Update : 04 Jan 2022, 09:38 PM

Govt agencies that are supposed to oversee launch operations have been found to be responsible for serious oversight in the deadly launch fire on the Sugandha River near Jhalakathi Sadar upazila on December 24. 

The negligence of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) and Shipping Department in discharging their duties, together with the indifference of launch staff, led to the loss of 49 lives in the horrific incident, according to the probe committee formed by the Shipping Ministry over the fire.

The committee, led by Joint Secretary Tofayel Islam, submitted its report on Monday night. It included 25 recommendations, including the abolition of the rotation system.

The report accused four owners of the launch, its master and helmsmen of being responsible for the fire and deaths.

According to the report, the fire originated in the engine room of the Barguna-bound MV Obhijan 10 at around 3am on December 24. It engulfed the entire engine room within 10 minutes.

The vessel was carrying around 800 passengers when it had a maximum capacity of 420.

The engines of the launch had been replaced with more powerful models early in December. The BITWA and Shipping Department did not inspect the newly installed engines before giving the launch the green signal to resume operations. 

According to launch rules and regulations, the Department of Shipping’s engineer, ship surveyors and BIWTA’s inspectors are supposed to inspect all passenger vessels when they return from dockyards before giving them permission for voyages. 

Staff of the passenger launch who were on-duty in the engine room when the fire broke out had tried to keep the faulty engines running even though they had stalled several times. When the engines caught fire, the staff abandoned the ship and its passengers without trying to douse the flames.

The faulty engine

The launch had been out of service for nearly three months as the owners decided to swap the engines for more powerful ones. Although the replacement engines were more powerful, they were reconditioned and installed at an unauthorized dockyard.

The launch had approval to use two engines with a combined 1,100 brake horsepower (BHP), whereas the newly installed engines totalled 3,036BHP.

Also read - Launch fire: Another victim dies in hospital, death toll reaches 49

On its second voyage from Dhaka after the engine swap, the reconditioned engines began to malfunction as the launch crossed Chandpur. Passengers sensed danger and asked the launch staff to anchor, but the launch master and engineers ignored their calls.

The engines stalled and were restarted thrice. The fourth time they were restarted, they caught fire and ceased to function completely. 

At one point, the flaming launch drifted close to the shore in Jhalakathi’s Dhanshiri union, where the staff abandoned ship and fled. They did not anchor the launch before fleeing, even though they had sufficient time to do so, and the launch floated back out to the middle of the river. 

Around 40 minutes later, the launch drifted to the other bank of the river, where surviving passengers finally managed to jump to safety. Many passengers had already burned to death or drowned in attempts to escape the flames before the launch reached the bank. 

Marine Court moved to show 3 launch owners as arrested

A Dhaka court on Tuesday set January 19 for the hearing on a petition to show three owners of the launch MV Obhijan 10 as arrested in a case filed over the deadly fire.

Special Metropolitan Magistrate Joynab Begum of the Dhaka Marine Court issued the order after the Department of Shipping filed the plea, Public Prosecutor Bellal Hossain told Dhaka Tribune.

The three accused are Md Hamjalal Sheikh, 55, Md Shamim Ahmed, 43, and Md Rasel Ahmed, 43. The jail authorities have been directed to produce the three accused before the court on the hearing date.

The three owners were detained soon after the fire incident occurred  and are currently in a Dhaka jail.

On Sunday, the court sent helmsman-in-charge Md Masum Billah and second helmsman Abul Kalam to jail after they surrendered and sought bail in the case.

Earlier, the court issued arrest warrants against eight people, including four owners of the launch, after Md Shafiqul Islam, chief inspector of Department of Shipping, filed the case.

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