The death toll from the capsizing of a Tanzanian ferry on Lake Victoria had climbed to at least 131 people and could rise further, officials said on Friday as they vowed to investigate the disaster.
Exactly how many people were on board the ferry, the MV Nyerere, remains unclear, as the authorities fear that the person who had handled ticketing was among those who drowned. But some estimates put the number of passengers on the boat when it overturned on Thursday at more than 300, according to Reuters.
Officials say the ferry appears to have been overloaded, with far more passengers than was advisable. One local official said the ferry’s capacity was 100 passengers.
By Friday evening, dozens of survivors and 131 bodies had been pulled from the water, and identification of the victims was underway, said Isack Kamwelwe, Tanzania’s minister for communication, transport and infrastructure. The numbers mounted steadily as the day went on, and officials cautioned that the death toll could continue to rise.
More than 24 hours after the tragedy, with hopes dimming for finding anyone still alive, Mr Kamwelwe said the government’s search for survivors was at an end.
The inspector general of the Tanzanian police, Simon Sirro, said a special investigation into the accident would be conducted.
President John Magufuli declared a three-day mourning period, beginning Saturday. Mr Kamwelwe said the funerals for the victims would be a national event, with the country’s leaders participating.
The ferry, managed by Tanzania’s Electrical, Mechanical and Electronics Services Agency, had been travelling between two islands — Ukara and Ukerewe — when it capsized Thursday afternoon, according to local reports. The islands are on the southern, Tanzanian side of the lake, which is shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The ferry journey takes about an hour.
Thursday is Market Day
Thursday is a big market day on Ukerewe, and the MV Nyerere is typically more crowded on that day than some other weekdays, local residents said. Many of those on the boat on Thursday were returning home to the smaller Ukara Island after shopping on Ukerewe, residents said. As the ferry approached the shore around 2 p.m., many passengers appear to have rushed to the front of the boat, to get in position to disembark quickly.
The ferry was only 100 or 200 meters from shore, when “the balance of the boat was overwhelmed and it started to capsize,” said the commissioner for the local Mwanza region, John Mongella.
On the shore, dozens of people began to scream in horror and helplessness as they watched the ferry overturn. It was clear to those on shore that many people were caught underneath.
One witness, Abdallah Mohammed, said that nearby fishing boats had converged on the ferry in an attempt to rescue as many people as they could.
“The ferry continued going down as people yelled for help,” Mr. Mohammed said.
Officials said that the ferry had an overall capacity of 100 people, 25 tons of cargo and three vehicles. A new engine was installed as recently as June, officials said.
Lake Victoria, where old ferries are often overloaded with passengers, has been the site of several maritime disasters, including the 1996 sinking of a Tanzanian ferry, the MV Bukoba. The death toll in that accident was at least several hundred, and some estimates put it over 1,000.