x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Overloading blamed for Tanzanian ferry capsize

Divers still searching as 220 bodies found after ferry already listing while still in port turned upside down at sea.

Graves are dug for victims of the ferry sinking near the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania, yesterday. Khalfan Said / AP Photo
Graves are dug for victims of the ferry sinking near the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania, yesterday. Khalfan Said / AP Photo

STONE TOWN, ZANZIBAR // Divers searched yesterday for any remaining survivors from the capsizing of an overcrowded ferry off the east African coast which killed more than a quarter of the 800 passengers crammed on-board.

Zanzibar police said overloading probably caused the worst maritime disaster in the history of Zanzibar, Tanzania's semiautonomous archipelago and a popular tourist destination.

"According to what we've heard so far from survivors, the ship was overloaded with cargo from Dar es Salaam, which included several vehicles, cement and iron rods," the police commissioner, Moussa Alli Moussa, said.

"Passengers who survived the accident told the police that the ship started taking in water from the cargo hold. That's when the vessel started to sink," he said.

The Zanzibar minister of state, Mohamed Aboud Mohamed, told a news conference yesterday that 192 bodies had been identified and there were 28 more waiting to be identified from the capsize early on Saturday morning. He said there were 619 survivors.

The MV Spice Islander began its voyage in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, where it was loaded with passengers, motor vehicles, bags of food and cement and other building materials.

When it reached Zanzibar, also known as Unguja, it took on more passengers and cargo for the trip to the archipelago's smaller island of Pemba.

Some passengers realised they were in danger when the ferry started to tilt while still in the port and tried to get off. A few succeeded before the crew pulled up the ladders so the ship could depart.

"First of all, the person to be blamed is the government, the whole government of Zanzibar ... they are still not serious, they need to resign now," said Safia Juma, who lost relatives in the accident.

Rescue workers admitted it was unlikely they will find any more survivors but they expected to recover more bodies.

"Teams of divers are searching the area this morning to see if they can rescue more survivors or recover additional bodies from the submerged vessel," said Mr Moussa.

Passengers on the ageing, crowded boat said they realised something was wrong when the overnight ferry began to list from side to side.

Then water rushed through and killed the engines, sending the Spice Islander upside down and pitching hundreds of people into the sea. Those lucky enough to find something to cling to floated in the dark waters for at least three hours until the strong currents began to wash them up on the white sandy shores of Zanzibar.

As the sun rose, news of the tragedy had already spread throughout the community and thousands of people were on the beach, desperately hoping their family members would be the next to emerge from the waves. One man, too upset to give his name, screamed over and over again the names of 25 missing family members, including his wife, sisters and grandsons.

Crowds of relatives and onlookers were in Stone Town yesterday to await news of missing passengers. "We lost eight relatives but my child survived ... and we haven't got any bodies and I have been here the whole night" said Yazid Amour.

Zanzibar residents said ships on the Unguja-Pemba route are notoriously overcrowded but few are inspected for safety.

"These ships are death traps, which have been brought here to finish us all," said Nassoro Abdallah Nassoro, who said he lost five relatives in the accident.

Mr Moussa said on Saturday more than 500 people were on the ship's manifest. According to the registrar of Zanzibar's seafaring vessels, the Spice Islander was licensed to carry 600 passengers. Four hours after the ferry left on Friday, Abuu Masoud got a call from relatives as the ferry started to sink. They were among those who perished in the fast Indian Ocean currents.

"At around 3am, they told us the vessel had tipped over and they were standing on its back waiting for assistance," Abuu Masoud said.

"They told us there were about 25 to 30 of them who were left standing on the ship. At around 4am, their phones were not reachable and we haven't seen or heard from them since," said Abuu Masoud, who lost seven relatives in the accident.

Tanzania's worst maritime disaster was in May 1996. Eight officials were charged with the murders of 615 people after the ferry MV Bukoba sank in Lake Victoria.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Associated Press