An overheating and larger-than-approved engine running at full-throttle was probably what caused the fire in the illegally modified engine room of the MV Abhijan-10, officials said.
Besides, the crew members simply abandoned the vessel, letting it drift downstream for over half an hour, an inferno on the Sugandha river with hundreds of people on board.
The death toll from the fire reached 41 as of last night.
The owner, Hanjalal Sheikh, mounted two new engines on the launch last month, replacing the government-approved ones that could produce a total of 1,100 horsepower. The owner had the structure of the vessel tweaked to be able to mount the engines, said probe committee members investigating the deadly fire.
Hanjalal did all of these without permission of the design committee led by the Shipping Department’s chief engineer, which in itself is a punishable offence.
Only one of the engines was running on the fateful night of Friday. There was not enough lubrication, causing the engine to heat up, said Mostafa Miah, a master of the Sundarban-13, who was with the probe committee members when they inspected the launch in Jhalakathi.
At least 100 people were injured in the fire and a total of 68 people are missing. Officials said many of those missing could be among the dead who have yet been identified.
The victims’ family members, locals, and the launch owner said deaths and injuries could have been fewer had the master moored the vessel to a tree on the bank in the Charkathi area of Jhalakathi.
Besides, judging by the time it took to reach Barishal from Dhaka, it seemed that the launch was speeding. It left Sadarghat around 6:00 pm and reached Barishal by 1:30 am.
Probe committee members said the main gate of the launch was locked, reducing the chances of people escaping.
The authorities have yet to identify 23 of the severely burnt bodies. They were buried in Barguna after officials collected their DNA samples.
Over 50 injured passengers are being treated at hospitals in Dhaka and Barishal.
An unnatural death case was filed with Jhalakathi Police Station yesterday.
ENGINES CHANGED WITHOUT APPROVAL
Built-in 2019, the MV Abhijan-10 started operation last year.
Hanjalal Sheikh, the owner, told yesterday that he changed the Chinese engines last month because they weren’t fueled efficiently.
But, he did not inform the Shipping Department, said Manjurul Kabir, chief engineer and ship surveyor of the department.
Hanjalal claimed that he was not aware that prior permission was required to change engines.
The launch authorities mentioned on papers in Sadarghat terminal that the vessel had 310 passengers, but the probe committee said the actual number was much higher.
Officials at the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority said the launch was supposed to have a first-class master but it had two second-class ones.
PROBE COMMITTEE FINDS FAULTS IN ENGINES
The seven-member probe yesterday visited the launch anchored in Diakul, inspected different parts of the vessel and talked with witnesses and locals.
After visiting the spot, probe committee chief and Shipping Ministry’s Joint Secretary Tofayel Islam said, “We have preliminarily detected some faults in the engines…”
A member of the committee said they were almost certain that the fire originated in the engine room. “People working there were supposed to solve the engine issue easily. We don’t know why the fault couldn’t be solved,” he said, requesting not to be named.
Family members of those who were on board the vessel said after the launch caught fire, it was steered to the bank in the Charkathi area. The crew then fled without mooring it.
But the launch drifted away and reached Diakul on the other side of the river half an hour later. By then, the whole launch was burnt.
The launch owner said his manager called him after fleeing the launch.
A probe committee member said the casualties might have been more had the launch not floated to the bank at Diakul.
The committee, formed on Friday, is supposed to submit its report in three workdays.