This is a launch disaster with a difference. The fire engulfed the Dhaka-Barguna bound three-storey launch in the wee hour on the river Sugandha when most of the passengers were asleep. They were caught in the inferno and below the water of the river in which many jostled in order to save lives had little chance of survival because of the wintry chill. The irony is that water was so close at hand and still it was of no use for dousing the fire. Primary reports estimate the death toll at only 40 but it is most likely to go up when the fate of the missing people is known. Now the question is, if the tragedy was at all inevitable. Although the owners of the launch have rejected any suggestion of engine problem, statements by passengers are contrary to the claim.
About the source of fire even the passengers made varying statements. Some claim it originated from the kitchen close to the engine room and others have no doubt that it was the engine that started behaving erratically right from the time the launch left Sadarghat. At times the engine made violent noise spewing black smokes. If the later version is correct, it is clear that the engine was giving trouble. The passengers making this claim further clarify that the launch also moved desperately during the excessive noise and released black smoke. If the contention that the fire broke out from the kitchen close to the engine room is true, this is surely dangerous. The Inland Shipping Ordinance, 1976 does not permit a kitchen to be operated in close proximity to the engine room. The Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) alleges that the Sections 56, 33 and 58(A) of the ordinance have been violated. In fact, water transport owners, operators and supervising authorities have been violating the ordinance with impunity.
Clearly, the launch could not be in flame so soon if there was an effective system of fire extinguishers. Water is so close by that such a system can easily be put in place. After all, large launches have to keep provision for fuel in case there is an urgent need. The fire thus spread in conjunction with the stored fuel when both came in contact with each other. It is exactly what might have happened in case of the MV Abhijan-10 launch disaster. In fact, such issues are overlooked because tragedies like this do not take place as frequently as their sinking or crashing one into another.
The bottom line is that safety issues on public transports of all types are compromised and the mechanism of supervision and monitoring is lax. Underhand dealings often allow the irregularities to continue as before once those are brought to the public notice after any disaster. This is a symptom of underdevelopment. The fact that lives are too precious to be put at risk by collusion between owners and supervising authorities is hardly recognised. Thus people have to pay a heavy price often with their lives. A thorough probe is necessary to find the real cause of the fire and compensate the victims. Then it has to be assured that all the water vessels follow the shipping ordinance.