“There were about 350 people on board when a storm split the steamer into two and so far we have recovered about 40 bodies and an estimated 150 people were either rescued or swam to safety,” Assam police chief JN Choudhury said.
The double-decker ferry sank in the fast-flowing Brahmaputra river in Assam state. Indian state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan said more than 100 people were feared killed. Witnesses said they saw victims being swept away by the river’s strong currents.
The boat was on its way from Dhubri to the adjoining district of Fakirganjan when the accident occurred in late afternoon amid strong currents, Haloi said.
Rescue workers rushed to the site and were struggling to find survivors, but darkness and bad weather were hampering rescue efforts.
“I could see people being swept away as the river current was very strong,” said Rahul Karmakar, who witnessed the sinking.
Dhubri is some 300km from Guwahati, Assam’s largest city.
Karmakar said there were women and children among those on board the ferry, which was carrying farmers, fishermen and other locals.
Boats are a common form of transport in India’s remote rural regions and accidents are common due to lax safety standards and overloading. In one of the last major ferry disasters in India, at least 79 Muslim pilgrims drowned when an overcrowded boat sank in the eastern state of West Bengal in eastern India.
Assam state chief minister Tarun Gogoi said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had telephoned him and promised to rush disaster response units from the national capital, New Delhi, and other locations.
“Army, border security force and other rescue teams with mechanised boats have moved to the site but nightfall and bad weather are hampering rescue efforts,” Gogoi said.