Kinniya Ferry Tragedy : Innocent Lives Lost
By Nabiya Vaffoor in Kinniya
“It was around 7:10 in the morning when my kids kissed me goodbye and left for school. When leaving they told me that they might get onto the motor ferry with the other kids to get to school on time, since the ferry stops close to the school. I left them on the road as I usually do. As soon as I reached home I saw a neighbour, who usually travels in the ferry at the same time, coming back. When I inquired from him, he only told me that the ferry on which both my daughters had got on to go to school, had toppled near the bank on the other side of the lagoon. I have no idea how I got to the hospital but what I saw in a couple of minutes when I reached there is something that no mother would ever expect to see in her life.” The mother of eight-year-old Fathima Shreen and six-year-old Shahla couldn’t stop sobbing over the loss of her daughters, who died in the tragic incident that took place at Kurunjankani Lagoon.
On 23 November 2021, a ferry which was carrying at least 25 people, including children, toppled drowning six including four beautiful children who started going to school after months of lockdown. In that unfortunate incident the ferry not only toppled, taking the lives those on it but also shattered the lives of those who lost their loved ones in this incident.
The authorities have arrested the ones who are responsible and are seeking to compensate the families who lost their loved ones in the incident. But, all that money cannot compensate for the shattered dreams and lost ambitions which were lost in the dark Kurunjankani Lagoon.
The ferry was travelling from Kurinchakeni to the town of Kinniya along the country’s eastern coast, about 260 kilometres (160 miles) northeast of the capital, Colombo. Ferry accidents are relatively rare in Sri Lanka because many locations are now connected by bridges. However, the bridge that connects the two towns has been closed for repairs, forcing people to use rudimentary vessels to cross the river.
According to reports, a 30-year-old mother, her six-year-old son, a three and a half-year-old child, two sisters and a 70-year-old man were among the dead. The rest of the passengers included five girls, six boys, four women and four men. Of them, 12 persons have been hospitalised after being rescued.
The ferry had been used by residents in the area due to the refurbishment of the existing Kuringankerny Bridge.
There were complaints from the locals that the ferry service in question was operated sans standards. According to reports, Chairman of the Kinniya Urban Council S.H.M. Naleem had issued a permit to an individual named M.A.M. Riyaz to transport passengers across the Kuringankerny Lagoon. The relevant permit has been issued under the conditions of safe transport of passengers, transport of school children free of charge and assessment of the ferry’s condition from time to time.
It has been revealed that with the commencement of the construction of the new bridge across the Kuringankerny Lagoon during the administration of the Government of Good Governance, the locals opted for a ferry service since the alternative route which stretches over 3 kilometres was considered too long.
Angry residents on 24 November burned tyres and surrounded Government offices, blaming officials for the accident, and the shop-owners in Kinniya town in Trincomalee staged a hartal on 25 November to protest against the incident, demanding justice for the six lives that were lost and the several others who were injured in the incident.
The owner and two operators of the passenger ferry that capsised at Kuringankerny, Kinniya in Trincomalee, who were arrested by Police, have been remanded until 8 December. In the meantime, the Chairman of the Kinniya Urban Council, S.H.M. Nalem, has been remanded till 9 December on the charge of being responsible for the fatal ferry capsize in Kinniya, Trincomalee. He was produced before Court upon being arrested earlier on 25 November.
A temporary service has been commenced by the Navy since 25 November and the Army officials who visited the spot have promised a temporary bridge to be used by the locals till the constructions of the actual bridge gets completed. The President has even advised the RDA to build the Kurunjankeni Bridge in nine months.
Speaking with Ceylon Today Assistant district director DMC K. Sugunadas confirmed that the family members of the deceased will be compensated for their loss.
Meanwhile, MP M.S. Thowfeek noted that he has informed the Police not to take legal actions against the youth who attacked his Kinniya residence following this incident since the youth who were frustrated over the incident just found someone to blame and in this case, it was him.
“The construction works of the Kurunjankani Bridge started on 10 April 2021 and the bridge was closed to the public on the request of the constructors. Since the construction was taking too long, the public requested the ferry service as an alternative mode of crossing the lagoon.
At first the ferry service run by Akram charged, therefore, I spoke to Nimal Lansa and requested for a free ferry service from the RDA and other relevant government institutions and Rs 2 million was allocated to the Ferry service through the RDA. Initially it was supposed to be launched in two-three weeks. Due to lockdowns, curfews and office closures the constructions and the launch of the ferry service were delayed by months. Amidst all of these the UC chairman had given approval to ferry service owner Riyaz to continue the ferry service. The chairman hadn’t consulted any engineer about the capacity that can be taken on the ferry or informed the council regarding approving Riyaz’s ferry services,” he added.
Speaking with locals in the area it was found that Riyaz’s ferry service drew many to travel on it since he had an automated motor in his ferry. In the meantime the locals noted that he didn’t charge from schoolchildren and the place he uses as the port is closer to the school, many kids and schoolteachers used his ferry.
Meanwhile, when we visited the project site the Project Manager’s driver shared his first hand experience on witnessing the incident of helping some victims to come out of the lagoon. He revealed that the bridge construction was stopped for few days due to some wrong estimates taken by the constructors.
“There was filling work going on though there was a delay at the work site. First they estimated the constructions to a depth of 27 metres but midway they found out that it was 37 metres, then the materials that were needed for the construction needed to be adjusted and there was some delays were going on,” added Azeez.
He also noted that it took several minutes for him to realise what happened all of a sudden.
“There were many people around the lagoon at that time. We helped as much as possible and took many out of the lagoon. When we were taking out two schoolchildren one was conscious and the other had fainted and I managed to take a lady out who had fainted and I heard that she was in the ICU of Kilinochchi Hospital since she has swallowed mud,” he added.
Naufer, who lives near the lagoon managed to hold back his tears and spoke to Ceylon Today. He pleaded with us to record his message.
“I live close by and came rushing to the lagoon hearing the scream of many people and all I saw was drowning people and kids. I shouted as loud as possible crying for help and people started rushing to the bank of the lagoon. Some of those who were in the ferry managed to swim to the shore but many were dragged to the shore by others. Many children had fainted when we dragged them out. I never want to recall this incident or go though something similar. No matter how strong we are, yet I couldn’t make up my mind to carry a kid while he is struggling for his last breath.”
Naufer broke into tears explaining about how they managed to bring bodies of the schoolkids who drowned and many other who fainted in the water who might have lost their life in the one or two seconds delay to pull them to the shore.
Heading to the Kurinjakini Hospital with a heavy heart we managed to visit six children who survived the tragic incident. Eight-old Shazaad, who lost his mother and brother and six-year-old Kadhaaf, who lost his grandfather in the similar incident were also admitted and six-year-old Thariq, who was saved by his mother who is yet receiving treatment at the Kurunjankani hospital ICU. The rest were seven-year-old Kaalidh, six -year-old Misa Absah and 12-year-old Malik.
The kids were trying their best to sneak out of their hospital beds and play around the ward when we were trying to talk to them, even Shazaad, who lost both his mother and brother and Kadhaaf, who lost his grandfather, clearly stated that they are dead but both didn’t seem to know the real meaning of that word. Only 12-year-old Malik said that he managed to swim to the bank with another two friends but had to head to the hospital since he was continuously feeling nauseous after the incident.
All the kids could only remember the fact that the ferry that they usually travel to school without any problem toppled, throwing every one of them into the water and they couldn’t remember anything but a person pulling them onto the bank.
Marriam Bibi, Grandmother of the survivor Kadhaaf, who lost his Grandfather, 70-year-old Shiham Abdul Cader in the similar incident, blamed no one and noted that she has nothing to do but plead from God for justice. Sitting on a ‘Musallah’ (praying mat) inside a shanty which is half built with bricks and the rest covered with dry Palmyra leaves, she kept on praying for all the souls which were taken, including her husband’s.
“I have nothing to say or no one to blame. Maybe, it’s God’s plan but God shouldn’t have allowed a cruel fate for us. One of my daughters and her daughter is living with us, both are autistic. It is my husband who used to look after us. He is a fisherman he used to fish for a living in the same lagoon that he drowned. Though we had much financial crisis as a family, I have never feared about tomorrow because God gave me his support through my husband. Now without him I’m nothing but a lost woman with two women to look after. My husband was a good man though he didn’t have much money he always managed to look after everyone. Even after saving our grandson he had swum back to save other lives and then a motor bike which was on the ferry has fallen on him and he drowned. May God bless his soul,” she said grieving.
Though Ceylon Today headed to meet the parents of the three and half-year-old child and family they refused to speak about their loss.
Memories that linger
Then Ceylon Today met Saleem, survivor Shazaads father, who lost his wife and his second child on the ferry accident.
“Sabriya is a Montessori teacher. She always goes to school on the ferry with our kids Shazaad and Zaid. I usually leave before them to work on my bike and even by 7/7.15 am she called and informed me that they are on the ferry to go to school. I came to the bank with my bike so I can pick Shazaad and drop him at the school while she and Zaid can walk to the Montessori. The ferry toppled in front of my eyes while I was looking. It wasn’t that far to the shore but when we were taking my wife out she was hugging Zaid they were dead and Shazaad had already been sent to the hospital. This could have been prevented if the construction of the bridge was done on time or at least the Government should have provided us a safer ferry service, now there is no point in blaming anyone and breaking anyone’s house and acting violently. Nothing is going to bring back the lost lives,” he said while rushing back inside to hide his tears from the strangers.
Father of Shahla and Shreen also said that the ambulances which came to the spot didn’t have at least a duty nurse to give the victims first aid, until they get to hospital, or even an oxygen tank.
“The facilities that we have around here, starting from the ferry service to the hospital everything wasn’t taken seriously by the authorities. If not for the authorities’ blind eyes this incident would have been prevented easily. My first daughter always dreamt of being a doctor, I’m not even sure whether she got basic medical assistance during her last minutes,” he added.
After this incident the authorities were prompt enough to bring all the temporary solutions to the spot. Even the Navy managed to launch a boat service with life Jackets, safety rings and even building safer temporary ports within a day, the question remains what took the authorities’ months to do what took less than one day. It is a shame to realise that we live under a Government which eagerly spends Rs 41 billion to build Golden Gates in urban areas while disregarding the need to spend the allocated Rs 2 million to launch a safer ferry service in a rural village.
(Additional Reporting by Rebecca Pavey and A.R.M. Rifas)
Pix by Manjula Dayawansa