MUNSHIGANJ, Bangladesh (AP) — A ferry that capsized during a storm in central Bangladesh, killing at least 29 people — and possibly many more — was likely overcrowded when it went down, authorities said Friday.
Rescuers recovered at least 29 bodies by Friday afternoon but police estimate at least 100 are still missing. It was not clear exactly how many people were on board because the ferry operators did not maintain a passenger list, according to a local administrator, Saiful Hasan.
Some passengers swam to safety, and some crew may have fled the scene after swimming to shore as well.
Rescue diver Masudul Haque said he had recovered nine of the bodies but many victims were trapped in cabin rooms.
"We have recovered the bodies mainly from the lower deck and other open spaces but could not open the doors of the cabin rooms where many passengers took shelter after the storm had hit," Haque said.
"I tried to open those doors but could not as huge volumes of sand have buried many of the doors," he said.
Relatives of the missing and the dead gathered on the banks the Meghna River, near where the boat capsized Thursday afternoon in Munshiganj district. Several bodies, covered in cloth, were laid out on the ground.
"I came here yesterday for my brother but I don't have any trace yet. Nobody can assure me of anything," said Lokman Hossain as he sobbed.
"Won't I get my brother back? Oh brother, please come back," he wailed.
Sabuj, a passenger who jumped overboard when the ship began to sink, said he was among some 25 survivors who swam.
He said the captain of the double-decker ferry ignored the passengers' calls to stay close to the shore as the storm started brewing.
"But he continued to steer the ship" out into the water, said Sabuj, who uses one name.
Authorities believe the crew may have run away, based on accounts from surviving passengers. "We are looking for them," said Ferdous Ahmed, local police chief.
The estimate of at least 100 missing is based on preliminary claims by family members and relatives, Ahmed said. Police say confusion exists and they are being conservative about the estimate.
Many family members of the missing were using country boats to scour the river in search of their loved ones, and an official used a loudspeaker to ask the relatives to move away from the accident site to help continue the search.
A salvage ship failed to pull out the ferry in the afternoon as strong currents in the 18-meters- (60-feet-) deep water made sand cover the vessel.
Haque, the Fire Service and Civil Defense diver, said the rescuers would work overnight to tow the ferry to the shore to search for more bodies. Two salvage ferries have been engaged, he said.
The ferry was apparently overcrowded and its lower deck was loaded with goods, said Mohammad Ali, a director of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority. Officials were investigating whether the vessel was overcrowded or had design faults.
Ferries are a common mode of transportation in this populous delta nation, and the Meghna River has been the scene of past accidents.
In 2012, at least 150 people died when a ferry carrying about 200 people capsized at night in the river.
In 2003, an overcrowded ferry capsized in flood-swollen waters at the confluence of the Padma, Meghna and Dakatia rivers near the capital Dhaka. Up to 400 people died.