Lake Victoria ferry disaster: Toll rises to 209 in boat accident in Tanzania; rescue workers pull out one survivor

The death toll from a crowded ferry capsizing in Lake Victoria rose to more than 200 Saturday, with scores of victims identified by grieving relatives, as rescuers found one lucky survivor from the disaster.

Divers continued their grim search in the waters around the upturned hull watched by anxious crowds gathered just metres away on the shore of Ukara Island, where the ferry had been due to dock when it lurched over and sank on Thursday. "We regret that at the moment there are 209 dead in total, 172 of whom have already been identified by relatives," said Transport Minister Isack Kamwelwe during a press conference broadcast by the public television TBC 1.

Rescue workers are seen at the scene where a ferry overturned in Lake Victoria, Tanzania. Reuters

Rescue workers are seen at the scene where a ferry overturned in Lake Victoria, Tanzania. Reuters

Although hopes were fading of finding any more survivors by day three of the search effort, workers rescued an engineer who had managed to locate a pocket of air in the vessel. Joseph Mkundi, a lawmaker for the Ukerewe district, told AFP the engineer had shut himself into a "special room". Mwanza regional governor John Mongella said search teams were awaiting the arrival of a "device" to turn the wreck over to speed up the search.

State television cited witnesses reporting that more than 200 people had boarded the ferry at Bugolora, a town on the larger Ukerewe Island. It was market day, which usually sees the vessel packed with people and goods.

Witnesses told AFP the ferry sank when passengers rushed to one side to disembark as it approached the dock. Others blamed the captain, saying he had made a brusque manoeuvre. Dozens of wooden coffins lined the shore on Saturday, waiting to be claimed by families of the victims.

Aisha William came to collect the body of her husband. "He left on Tuesday around noon, but he never came home. I do not know how I am going to raise my two children," she said.

Sebastian John, a teacher, said such tragedies had become part of life for those living on the lake. "Since my birth, people have gone to their deaths on this lake, but what are we to do? We did not choose to be born here, we have nowhere to go," he said.

Tanzania's Electrical, Mechanical and Services Agency, which is responsible for ferry services, said it was unknown how many passengers were aboard the MV Nyerere.

The ageing vessel, whose hull and propellers were all that remained visible after it overturned, was also carrying cargo, including sacks of maize, bananas and cement, when it capsized about 50 metres  from Ukara dock.
Tanzanian President John Magufuli on Friday ordered the arrest of ferry management. In a speech broadcast on TBC 1, Magufuli said "it appears clear that the ferry was overloaded." He added: "negligence has cost us so many lives... children, mothers, students, old people.

"I ordered the arrest of all those involved in the management of the ferry. The arrests have already begun," he added.

The president declared four days of national mourning and said the government would cover the funeral expenses of the victims.

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, but overloading is frequently to blame for such incidents. "We have often raised concerns about the poor condition of this ferry, but the government turned a deaf ear. We have repeatedly denounced this negligence," said John Mnyika, deputy secretary general of Chadema, the main opposition party.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Uganda and Kenya offered their condolences, while Pope Francis in a statement expressed "the greatest solidarity with those who have been bereaved".

With a surface area of 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles), oval-shaped Lake Victoria is roughly the size of Ireland and is shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. It is not uncommon for ferries to capsize in the massive lake, and the number of fatalities is often high due to a shortage of life jackets and the fact that many people in the region cannot swim.


Updated Date: Sep 23, 2018 08:37 AM

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