The ferry collided with a cargo vessel and sank within minutes on the Padma river, the second deadly boat accident in a fortnight in the country, which has a history of ferry tragedies.
“Divers have recovered 41 bodies. The dead included 11 children and seven women,” local police chief Rakibuz Zaman told AFP, updating an earlier toll of 38.
Officials said they did not know the exact number of people missing, but said search and rescue efforts would continue through the night, with the aid of floodlights from other ferries on the river.
Rescuers were unloading bodies from small boats some 70 kilometres (50 miles) from the capital Dhaka at the Paturia ferry terminal in the country’s northwest, where grieving relatives have gathered to identify them.
“We found one body but five are still missing. We were returning home after the opening of a temple,” Hindu holy man Kumud Ranjan Goswami said of his colleagues.
Survivors said the MV Mostofa was overcrowded with about 70-150 passengers crammed into the upper and lower decks, leaving them scrambling to find their loved ones when the tragedy struck.
“I was holding my mother’s hand when the cargo boat hit our ferry from behind,” an 18-year-old who gave his name as Al Amin told AFP at the terminal.
“Within two minutes the ferry was sunk. Before I realised I was washed away to the middle of the river. “I swam and a ferry rescued me. But I don’t know what happened to my mom.”
50 passengers rescued
Police chief Zaman said some 50 people “swam ashore or were rescued by other vessels”.
Bangladeshi ferries do not normally keep passenger lists, making it difficult to establish how many are missing after an accident.
An official said a salvage vessel was on its way to raise the sunken ferry, adding that the master of the cargo ship and two other crew had been arrested.
The Padma river is one of the largest in the delta nation, and boats are the main form of travel in many of Bangladesh’s remote rural areas, especially in the south and northeast.
Local newspaper Prothom Alo quoted one survivor, Hafizur Rahman, as saying the cargo ship hit the boat 15 minutes after departure, causing it to overturn and trapping many passengers.
“I was on the deck of the ferry and fell into the river. Those who were on the deck were able to come out but none of the passengers inside could get out,” Rahman told the paper.