It took 15 fire engines two hours to control the fire and another eight to cool down the vessel, according to fire officer Kamal Uddin Bhuiyan, who led the rescue operation. Afterward, the blackened hull of the ferry sat anchored at the river's edge. Many anxious relatives gathered on the banks, while divers continued to search the waters.
The blaze broke out around 3 a.m. on the MV Avijan-10, which was carrying 800 passengers, many of whom were traveling to visit family and friends for the weekend, officials said.
“I was sleeping on the deck and woke up hearing screams and a loud noise,” survivor Anisur Rahman told reporters, adding that he saw smoke coming from the back of the ferry. “I jumped into the freezing water of the river in the thick fog, like many other passengers, and swam to the riverbank.”
Police officer Moinul Haque said rescuers recovered 37 bodies from the river, while two people died from burn injures on the way to the hospital. All of the 70 injured were hospitalized, including some with severe burns.
Ferries are a leading means of transportation in Bangladesh, which is crisscrossed by about 130 rivers, and accidents involving the vessels are common, often blamed on overcrowding or lax safety rules.
The ferry was traveling from Dhaka, the capital, to Barguna, about 155 miles to the south. It caught fire off the coast of Jhalokati district on the Sugandha River, toward the end of the journey.
Bhuiyan said the fire may have started in the engine room. The government set up two committees to investigate the blaze and ordered them to report their findings in three days.
In April, 25 people died after a ferry collided with another vessel and capsized outside Dhaka.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.