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Ferry Disaster Survivors Blame Crew For Overcrowding

May 23, 1996 GMT

MWANZA, Tanzania (AP) _ Passengers accused crew members of accepting bribes to overload a ferry that sank in Lake Victoria, leading the government to promise an independent investigation into the accident.

Divers were to begin cutting apart the ferry’s hull today to retrieve the bodies of hundreds of people trapped inside when the ferry sank Tuesday in 90 feet of water. Officials said 549 passengers and crew were presumed drowned, many of them students on their way home from boarding school. Rescuers saved 114 people.

Survivors said Wednesday that some passengers bribed ferry captain Rume Mwiru and crewmen to let them board the MV Bukoba at the western port that gave the ferry its name.

The Bukoba was making the run to Mwanza because its sister ship, the much larger MV Victoria, was out of service for repairs. Although the Bukoba has a capacity of 441 people _ half that of the other ferry _ transportation workers mistakenly sold 800 tickets for the voyage.

Angry ticket-holders were among those who forced their way on board. Others had come to the port without tickets, expecting to find room on the larger vessel.

William Kusila, Tanzania’s transportation minister, said that because the ferry company is state-owned, the government would hire a foreign consultant to ensure an unbiased investigation.

Kunsila conceded that the ferry was carrying 222 more passengers than its official capacity when it sank. But he insisted its cargo load, about 8.5 tons, was well below its 80-ton capacity.

Survivors disagreed, saying the boat was heavily overloaded.

``There were so many people standing in the corridors, you couldn’t pass through, ″ Godfrey Simango, 23, said Wednesday from his hospital bed.

Overloading ferries has been a problem for the impoverished Lake Victoria region, especially during the current rainy season when roads are washed out and people must rely on water transportation.

In Kemondo, the captain took on several tons of bananas, transportation officials said. One banana seller, Justin Lwakatare, said merchants anxious to get their fruits and vegetables to market in Mwanza broke down a port barrier to board the ship.

``As soon as we left Kemondo, the ship started to sway. From the shore people shouted, `Come back, you are in danger,‴ Lwakatare said from his bed at Bugando Medical Center. As he spoke, his eyes flooded with tears over his nephew’s death.

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The ferry had nearly finished its 12-hour journey when it began pitching from side to side, survivors said. It capsized eight miles northwest of Mwanza, Tanzania’s largest port on Lake Victoria.

Cleophas Magoge, a manager at the Tanzania Railway Corp. that operated the ferry, said the ship capsized at 7:30 a.m. ``The captain didn’t even have time to radio an SOS,″ he said.

Passengers trapped in an air pocket in the hull begged for help for hours. ``People were hammering on the bulkheads,″ he said. At about 3 p.m. rescuers cut a hole in the hull with a torch. The air escaped, causing the ship to suddenly sink.

Survivors said the ferry’s few life jackets were difficult to reach. Eunice Kararuki, 41, said she floated on bananas for two hours until she was saved.

The captain, feverish and complaining of chest pains at the hospital, refused to comment on the accident and referred questions to the ferry boat owner, Tanzania Railway Corp.

Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, presiding over a memorial service attended by thousands at a soccer stadium, was applauded when he promised to ``investigate so that we know the cause, and in future, ship owners will take precautions to prevent another tragedy.″

The 17-year-old Belgian-built ferry usually carried passengers to Port Bell, in Uganda. It had recently passed a safety inspection.

Tanzania, a nation of 25.5 million people, sits on the southern edge of Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake.

Africa’s last major ferry disaster occurred in December 1991, when 460 people died after a ship sank near the port of Safaga, Egypt.

In September 1994, 852 people died when the ferry Estonia sank in rough waters in the Baltic Sea.