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Divers Describe Ferry Disaster Scene

September 30, 2002 GMT

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DAKAR, Senegal (AP) _ Screaming for help and gasping for air, countless victims of one of Africa’s deadliest ferry disasters survived for hours in the overturned MS Joola, rescue divers said Monday _ describing scenes of horror in air pockets that had kept the vessel afloat.

With nearly 1,000 presumed dead, it appeared Monday the true toll could be even hundreds higher _ with ticketing authorities saying all children under 5 would have gone unticketed, and thus apparently uncounted. ``Children were found clutching their mothers,″ said Haidar el Ali, a diver who visited the doomed vessel.


President Abdoulaye Wade acknowledged the state-run MS Joola was overcrowded when it capsized in the Atlantic just before midnight Thursday, tumbling under the waves in a heavy gale. Germany’s Hamburger Abendblatt daily reported Monday that a German shipyard built the ship 12 years ago for voyages on the placid Rhine River, and designed it for no more than 536 passengers.

Authorities said an investigation ordered by the president would conclude Monday, providing a fuller accounting.

Only 64 are known to have survived among an official count of 1,034 passengers and crew _ those who escaped the overturned ferry, and hung onto its exposed hull for hours.

The first fishermen to reach the ferry, fully four hours after the accident, spoke of survivors inside fighting for their lives.

``There were people screaming or hitting on windows″ when fishermen arrived, el Ali, head diver at a Dakar scuba center who led the search, told reporters.

``When I dove in, I saw bodies everywhere,″ many huddled near air pockets, said el Ali, whose 16-diver team took about 17 hours to arrive by boat from Dakar.

``We saw bodies floating by the hundreds, the hundreds, the hundreds.″

About 150 military personnel, fishermen and rescue divers from Senegal, neighboring Gambia and former colonial power France were taking part in the recovery. Gambian and Senegalese authorities said they had retrieved more than 360 bodies from inside the ferry, before decomposition made recovery of intact victims impossible.

``I want to use this opportunity to tell the families that I’m sorry we couldn’t bring everyone out,″ El Ali said in Dakar, breaking into sobs.

With Senegalese still scanning photos and lists of the dead for what at times were entire missing families, angry questions built over why the disaster happened.

Wade, speaking to reporters late Sunday, blamed ``an accumulation of errors.″

Senegalese television footage showed the ferry swaying heavily as it left the southern town of Ziguinchor toward Dakar. Some late-arriving passengers hopped aboard later from small pirogues that had caught up.

Navy Commander Ouseynou Combo insisted ``there was no problem of weight or of overloading of a nature that would cause this situation.″ He cited survivor accounts of the boat being caught in a fierce, 10-minute storm.

On a run from fertile south Senegal to the capital, Dakar, the ferry foundered several miles off Gambia, a strip-shaped former English colony that divides north and south Senegal.

Combo, the Navy commander, said Senegalese maritime officials ``unfortunately″ did not immediately act when the ferry failed to make its regular, two-hour calls to port.

Fishing vessels discovered the disaster first, at 4 a.m., he said.

The government set up five ``crisis centers″ in Dakar for relatives over the weekend, displaying photos of the dead in hopes of identifying victims. Many faces were too waterlogged to be recognizable.

In other major ship disasters in Africa, at least 500 people died on May 21, 1996, when the MV Bukoba sank on Lake Victoria. On April 29, 1994, an estimated 300 people drowned when an overloaded ferry near Kenya on the Indian Ocean.

Ferries are the main transportation between north and south Senegal, in part because travel by road is slowed by border checks passing through Gambia. Merchants carrying dried fish, mangos and other goods from verdant Casamance make up many of the usual clientele.

Many people in Dakar or Casamance said they knew at least one of the passengers, who were mostly Senegalese or from nearby nations. Several dozen were European _ including more than 20 from France. Some had been traveling in families, and grieving relatives said they had lost many siblings, sons or daughters.

Marian Tuti Mendy, 40, who had three family members on board, traveled from her home in Serrekunde, Gambia, to the port town of Sanyung _ the nearest land to where the search was taking place, far off shore, and out of sight.

Alone, she stared at the blank ocean.

``My fear is that there may not be any oxygen in the cabin where they are,″ Mendy said. ``But I still have hope. I place my trust in God.″