Calcutta, Oct. 30: At least 18 people drowned in the Hooghly near Sagar Island this afternoon when their overcrowded trawler capsized after being rocked by the wash of a passing ship.
The passengers were villagers from the Kakdwip area, about 85km from Calcutta, who were returning from a fair at Hijli Sarif in East Midnapores Khejuri. The 18 confirmed dead include a dozen women and three young girls.
South 24-Parganas district officials claimed the trawler was carrying over 100 passengers — far more than the legal limit of 60 — and that 40 of them had been rescued till search operations were called off for the day at 7pm.
Of the rest, some may have swum ashore by themselves, but the officials accepted that the death toll could rise.
Debaprasad Mahapatra, a local youth who had joined the rescue operation, said he saw men, women and children floating in the river.
It was very difficult to ascertain how many were swimming — or just floating — to try and reach the banks. We rescued some and brought them to Kakdwip hospital, he said.
South 24-Parganas additional district magistrate Nilanjan Sandilya said: The trawler hit a buoy after the big waves set off by a passing ship lashed it near Talpati Char close to Sagar Island.
A district official said overcrowding had led to several trawler tragedies in the Hooghly and may have been a factor in todays disaster too.
The accident happened about 200km from Calcutta. The villagers, mostly from farming families, had rented two trawlers for the trip. Both vessels were hit by the waves around 2.45pm, but one of them survived the impact.
Ahidul Mollah, who was on the ill-fated Ma Durga with five family members, was in shock at the Kakdwip subdivisional hospital, where 25 of those rescued have been admitted.
There was a jerk, the trawler overturned and we were thrown into the waters. People from the other trawler rescued me; I dont know whats happened to my family members, he said.
Sheikh Farukuddin, who was in the other trawler, said: Our trawler too was hit by the waves but we had a close shave. Ma Durga overturned in front of my eyes… people were screaming for help.
The Coast Guard and the National Disaster Response Force helped the rescue operations. We shall resume the search tomorrow morning by engaging Coast Guard personnel on hovercraft, East Midnapore superintendent of police Asok Kumar Biswas said.
Sunderbans minister Kanti Ganguly and C.M. Jatua, the junior Union information and broadcasting minister from the Trinamul Congress, are camping in the area.