At least 136 bodies have been retrieved from Lake Victoria in east Africa after a ferry sank on Thursday afternoon, Tanzanian officials have said, and scores more are still feared missing as rescuers search for survivors.
Initial estimates suggested the MV Nyerere was carrying as many as 300 people when it capsized near the dock in Ukerewe, Lake Victoria’s largest island.
At least 37 people were brought to safety on Thursday, some in “a very bad condition”, said John Mongella, the commissioner for the Mwanza region in northern Tanzania. It was unclear whether any new survivors had been found since rescue operations resumed on Friday morning.
George Nyamaha, the head of Ukerewe district council, which governs the island, said there were more than 100 passengers on board when the ferry sank. The precise number is unknown because the ticket-seller had drowned and the machine recording sales has not been found.
Others suggested there were several hundred people, including many children, on the ferry. The MV Nyerere was crowded because it was a market day. The incident appears to have occurred as the ferry docked.
“I have not heard from either my father or my younger brother who were on the ferry,” said Domina Maua, who was among those at the dockside seeking information about survivors. “They had gone to the market in Bugolora to buy a school uniform and other supplies for the new school term.”
Davita Ngenda, an elderly woman in Ukara, received bad news. “My son is among the bodies recovered,” she said, weeping. “He had gone with his wife but she has not been found yet. My God, what did I do to deserve this?”
Sebastian John, a teacher, said such tragedies had become part of life for those who live near 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 did not know how many passengers were aboard the MV Nyerere.
The ageing ferry, 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 (55 yards) from Ukara dock.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, but overloading is frequently to blame for such incidents.
President John Magufuli was “deeply saddened” by the disaster and urged Tanzanians to “stay calm during these difficult times”, according to a spokesman, Gerson Msigwa.
The country’s opposition, however, accused the government of negligence. “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, the deputy secretary general of Chadema, the main opposition party.
Mnyika said overloading was “another failure of the authorities” and criticised “inadequate relief efforts as well as delays” in the rescue operation.
With a surface area of 70,000 sq km (27,000 sq miles), the oval-shaped Lake Victoria is roughly the size of Ireland and is shared by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Capsizes are not uncommon and the number of fatalities is often high due to a shortage of lifejackets and the fact that many people in the region cannot swim.
The deadliest such incident in recent decades was in May 1996, when about 800 people died after their ferry sank on the way to Mwanza in Tanzania.
Lake Victoria can be rough and boats are frequently poorly maintained, while ferry operators often fail to record the number of passengers on board.
Approximately 20 people were killed in December 2016 when a boat overturned on the lake as it was carrying passengers to mainland Uganda for the Christmas holidays.
In March 2012, only two survivors were found after a boat carrying about 60 people capsized on the lake in Uganda.