Three days of mourning began Sunday in the Tanzanian region of Zanzibar after a ferry sank, killing about 200 people, while dozens are still missing.
Head of the rescue mission Hussein Mohamed told The Citizen newspaper that according to preliminary investigations the tragedy in the Indian Ocean was caused by the crew ignoring safety regulations.
“It was heavily overloaded with passengers and cargo. It started sinking in the rear, where water got into the vessel,” Mr. Mohamed said.
According to the local Red Cross more bodies are still in the ocean, while some rescue workers believed victims were trapped in the capsized vessel, the MV Spice Islander.
More than 500 people were saved from the open waters by official emergency workers and volunteers who rushed into the ocean on any available boat to rescue the passengers. Among those pulled out alive were babies and toddlers, who were found floating on their own.
“It was terrifying. People were screaming and shouting in the dark,” Aisha Mohammed, aged 7, told rescuers.
Local tourist resorts and fishermen donated their motorboats and scuba diving gear for the rescue efforts.
The area where the ship went down is experiencing heavy currents which hampered the emergency operations and are now causing concern that some bodies may never be recovered.
The ship began to experience troubles in the early hours of Saturday when travelling between Zanzibar’s main island of Unguja to the island of Pemba in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Witnesses say they understood the vessel was sinking about 30 kilometres into the voyage.
“I realized something strange on the movement of the ship. It was like zigzag or dizziness,” 15-year-old Yahya Hussein said, according to the Red Cross aid workers who treated him.
Hussein survived by holding on to a plank of wood until rescue boats found him drifting in the ocean.
Estimates say over 800 passengers might have been on board, including many children, though the vessel, which is believed to be more than 40 years old, was built to handle only about 650 people.
According to witnesses, many potential travellers refused to get on board the MV Spice Islander, realizing it was over packed.
The government has ordered a full investigation into the disaster, as families were still identifying the bodies of the victims.
Most of the bodies recovered from the ocean were brought to a football field and set up in lines of men, women and children so they could be claimed by relatives.
The Zanzibar government has pledged to help the families of victims cover the costs of the funerals.
According to the local media, the tragedy is the worst maritime disaster in modern Zanzibar history. For the Tanzanian republic as a whole, only the 1996 sinking of the MV Bukoba in Lake Victoria, which resulted in 894 casualties, was worse.