DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania - In one of the year's worst disasters, about 136 people were confirmed dead and several others were still missing after a ferry capsized on Lake Victoria on Thursday.
The ferry, the MV Nyerere, was reportedly preparing to dock at Ukerewe Island in Africa's largest and the world's largest tropical lake, Lake Victoria, when it suddenly overturned at 2.05 pm on Thursday.
Several locals, who were waiting on the Ukerewe Island - the largest island in the lake - watched in horror as the packed ferry toppled over, about 50 meters away from the dock at Ukara island.
Locals on the island are believed to have raised an alert and even joined in the rescue effort after emergency crews launched efforts to hunt for survivors.
Rescue efforts by emergency teams lasted several hours after the incident but were eventually
suspended late on Thursday, and were to begin again at dawn.
At the end of the day, officials from the Tanzanian government said that 42 people were confirmed dead, but hundreds of others that were onboard the ferry, were still missing.
Addressing reporters late on Thursday, George Nyamaha, Head of Ukerewe District Council said, "There were more than 100 passengers onboard when the ferry sank. It is feared that a significant number have lost their lives."
Meanwhile, Adam Malima, the Regional Commissioner for Tanzania’s second largest city of Mwanza, told reporters, "We pray to God to give us hope in such an accident. We pray to God to give us hope that there has not been a high death toll."
However, local reports quoted witnesses as saying that the ill-fated ferry, which was travelling from Bugorora Island to Ukara Island, was severely overcrowded.
According to initial estimates, the ferry had a capacity of 100 people, and was believed to be carrying about 400 people, along with heavy bags, that contained cement amongst other things.
Frantic Friday search
On Friday, when rescue operations led by the Tanzanian Navy began at first light, only the hull and propellers of the ageing ferry remained visible.
Officials said that more rescuers, including the police and military, had joined in, to help speed up the search operation, which also received voluntary assistance from private companies and individuals who operate small boats.
With no clarity on the exact number of people that were onboard the ferry when it capsized, desperate rescuers searched the entire area where the ferry sunk.
Authorities said that while search teams had been instructed to hunt for survivors and bodies on priority - a team of rescuers had also been tasked with searching for the equipment and possible records aboard the vessel.
The special team was to search and find the machine that records all the data aboard the ferry, along with the ticketing officer's records.
However, officials later said that neither had been traced until Friday evening.
Meanwhile, local newspaper reports cited credible sources as saying that the vessel was ferrying at least 300 people.
Sources further revealed that the ferry had done brisk business on Thursday - since it was auction day or what is locally known as 'Market Day' in Bugorora.
MV Nyerere, which crosses the busy route between the islands of Ukara and Ukwerewe about eight times a day, had been packed on all journeys on Thursday.
According to sources, when the ferry capsized, a majority of the people onboard were local traders, who had been carrying a variety of cargo, including sacks of cement, banana and maize.
Further, the ferry was believed to be loaded with much more than its 25-tonne cargo capacity.
Local reports quoted people in Bugorora, who saw the packed ferry leaving from the island as saying that the ferry had several traders who bought their stock and filled it into the ferry.
They said that apart from dozens of people, the ferry left Bugorora along with a lorry that was loaded with cereals.
They pointed out that the ferry, which has space for three small vehicles too, was seen departing Bugorora jam-packed but took off well, even though the weather was quite turbulent and lake waters were particularly rough on the day.
Grief and guilt
In an official statement, the ferry operator Tanzania's Electrical and Mechanical Services Agency (TEMESA), acknowledged that the ferry overturned trapping all passengers under water.
However, TEMESA argued that during the course of the journey, no incident had been reported.
The operator further pointed out that MV Nyerere had recently undergone heavy maintenance, during which two of its engines had been changed.
Amid speculation over the cause of the disaster, Tanzanian authorities ruled out the possibility of the ferry overturning due to any mechanical problems.
They have, however, not commented on the possibility that bad weather caused the incident.
Yet, many in the region continued to claim that the ferry was overcrowded which led to the incident.
In Tanzania, which has a long and tragic history of maritime disasters, often overcrowding and negligence are blamed for such incidents.
On Friday, as rescue operations continued, several grief-stricken families from Tanzania's second-largest city of Mwanza waited by the dockside to hear about the fate of their relatives and friends, who were on the ferry at the time tragedy struck.
Meanwhile, later in the day, authorities said that the size of the crowd and the cargo aboard the vessel was still difficult to estimate since the equipment used to record ticket sales remained untraceable and the ticketing officer was among those who perished in the disaster.
In an official statement on Friday evening, Tanzania's Inspector General of Police (IGP), Simon Sirro said that at least 136 bodies have been retrieved from Lake Victoria.
Sirro added that scores of people were still feared missing.
In a statement broadcast live on state television, Transport Minister Isack Kamwele confirmed the death toll.
Jonathan Shana, Regional Police Commander for the Mwanza Port was quoted as saying that 37 people had been rescued from the sea.
However, Mwanza Regional Commissioner John Mongella said that 40 people that were rescued were provided immediate medical assistance, as they were in a critical condition.
The victims' bodies were reportedly being preserved at the Bwisya mortuary.
Officials also noted that since authorities were focussed on the battle to save lives and retrieve bodies, investigations had not begun officially yet.
The State Media said in an official report that the MV Nyerere may have been carrying as many as 200 passengers when it capsized close to the pier on Ukara Island on Thursday.
The report pointed out that this was double the ferry's capacity.
Subsequently, in an address to the nation that was broadcast live on TBC One public television, the Tanzanian President John Magufuli declared four days of national mourning.
On Friday evening, the President said, "I have decided to declare four days of national mourning starting today."
Magufuli added that 131 bodies had been recovered and pointed out that many more could still be trapped in the capsized ferry.
Further, the Tanzanian President referred to "negligence" and announced that he had ordered the arrest of "all those involved in the management of the ferry."
Magufuli said, "It appears clear that the ferry was overloaded. The arrests have already begun."
Magufuli also warned against politicizing the disaster and said, "Let's leave designated authorities to investigate."
However, Tanzania's main opposition party - Chadema, alleged that the government "responded late to the sinking."
Accusing the government of negligence, John Mnyika, Deputy Secretary-General of Chadema party told reporters, “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."
He added that overloading was “another failure of the authorities” and slammed the government for what he called “inadequate relief efforts as well as delays” in the rescue operation.
Meanwhile, the state-owned Swahili-language newspaper, Taifa Leo said in a report on its website that top officials from the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority (Sumatra) would be questioned as part of the investigations.
Further, the report noted that preliminary investigations have revealed that the ferry had been carrying more passengers than its capacity permitted.
Nautical disasters common
Ferry disasters - especially those that have been linked to overcrowding and negligence - have been common in Tanzania over the years.
According to official data, each year, the east African nation suffers a number of nautical disasters.
One of the worst ferry disasters of the last century and Tanzania's deadliest maritime incident in recent decades took place in May 1996.
Over 800 people aboard MV Bukoba were killed after the ferry, that was heading to Mwanza, capsized on Lake Victoria.
Several years later, in 2011, about 200 people were killed in what became one of the first major incidents off the coast of Tanzania’s Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar.
Hundreds that were aboard the ferry that capsized managed to survive but several people were found clinging to mattresses and fridges.
The following year, a packed ferry overturned off the shore of its destination of Zanzibar and sank in the semi-autonomous archipelago, killing all 145 people on board.