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Scores dead in ferry sinking in India; hope for survivors dwindles

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NEW DELHI — Rescue workers searched Tuesday for the remains of about 160 people who were still missing, 24 hours after an overcrowded ferry broke apart and sank in the Brahmaputra river during a severe storm in eastern India.

The bodies of more than 100 of the 350 people who were aboard the double-decker ferry when it capsized Monday have already been recovered. With every passing hour, rescuers said, hopes of finding live passengers dwindled.

“Now it is no longer a question of finding survivors . . . operations are focusing on getting the dead bodies out,” said Phani Husain Chowdhury, a local politician who visited the site Tuesday afternoon.

Alok Kumar Singh, a commandant with the Border Security Force's disaster operations, told reporters in Assam that “the underwater current in the Brahmaputra river is very strong. How many will stay alive in that situation, we do not know.”

The ferry sank late Monday in the Dhubri district of the eastern state of Assam, near where the river flows into Bangladesh. Many passengers jumped from the rocking boat in panic, one official said. Passengers on the upper deck fared better than those who were trapped in the lower portion of the boat.

Pouring rain and rough river currents hampered overnight rescue operations, according to the government officials. The nearest hospital was a mile away from the site of the mishap.

“The boat was very old and packed beyond capacity with people and goods,” Chowdhury said. “The government did not engage as many rescuers as it should have. The night search operations were crucial.”

The state government in Assam announced an interim compensation of about $3,000 for the families of the dead, and about $1,000 for the injured. Twenty-eight local politicians pledged to donate one month of their salaries to families of those who were killed.

Chowdhury said the two parts of the broken boat were in the water near the river bank, and some corpses may be underneath.

“People’s personal belongings are floating all over the water,” he said. “It was the local villagers living along the banks of the river who first alerted the border guards. They saw about 60 to 70 people swimming to the bank, alive, after the accident.”

Assam’s chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, promised a thorough probe into the cause of the accident. Similar mishaps have occurred in the past, because of the number of overloaded private ferries operating along the river, often with poor safety measures in place. But Monday’s accident is the worst in recent memory, officials said.

The state’s transport minister, Chandan Brahma, said that a study to build a bridge over the river is underway.

India’s Border Security Force asked river guards in Bangladesh to “be on the lookout for dead bodies that may float downstream and come their way,” said Tirtha Acharya, a spokesman with the agency in New Delhi.

Local officials in Assam said that 240 people had bought tickets for the steamer, but there were many additional passengers who were traveling without tickets.

“The northeastern part of India has very poor road and rail connectivity and water transport is the way to travel for many people,” said Birendra Prasad Baishya, a member of parliament from Assam. “Improvement in the condition of boats, strict enforcement of rules about the number of passengers on a boat, and setting up of an early storm-warning system is the call of the hour.”

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