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760 dead in West Africa ferry sinking

By Nafi Diouf
Saturday September 28, 2002

DAKAR, Senegal — More than 760 people were believed dead Friday after an ocean ferry capsized off West Africa in a fierce gale, with 88 victims recovered and bodies of others spotted trapped inside. 

“It was horrible, because we were hearing people screaming from underneath,” said hospitalized survivor Moussa Ndong, who escaped when the ferry capsized Thursday night. He survived by clinging to the side of the vessel for two hours. 

“The boat went down so fast. It was so unbelievable — in just three minutes, the boat went down,” he said. 

Fishing boats and other vessels rescued the 32 survivors, according to Senegal Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye. 

The state-owned Joola ferry capsized off Gambia in the Atlantic Ocean about 11 p.m. en route to the Senegalese capital, Dakar, from the south of the country. Gambia is a strip-shaped country only a few miles wide and divides north and south Senegal. 

The vessel remained in one piece Friday, and still on its side, said Mamadou Diop Thioune, a coordinator of a French-funded marine center whose divers were helping in the search for victims. 

Dive teams recovered 88 bodies, Diop said. They spotted a number of corpses through the ferry windows, and believed the still unrecovered passengers and crew to be dead, with their corpses caught inside, he said. 

“Now, I’m afraid, it’s a matter of recovering bodies,” he said. 

The first corpses retrieved from the accident were being taken back to the port Friday. 

Searchers waited as night fell Friday for the arrival of military divers with equipment to cut into the ferry, he said. 

Ndong told The Associated Press by telephone from a hospital in neighboring Gambia that the storm brewed as the ferry made its way north from Senegal’s southern district of Casamance. 

As the wind built, the boat started tipping to one side, he said. Water rushed into the cabin. When the lights went out, he said, passengers started screaming. 

Senegal declared three days of national mourning at midday Friday as the search for victims continued. Boye and other state officials went to the port to be with families. 

President Abdoulaye Wade cut short a trip to France. Speaking briefly to reporters upon his return home, he pledged an investigation. 

Families and friends rushed to the port in Dakar, sobbing and pounding their heads on walls. 

“God have mercy! Pray! Pray everyone!” one woman, waiting with the rest for news of loved ones, pleaded. “Stop crying!” 

Later, hundreds of people surrounded the locked gates of navy offices, demanding information about the search and rescue and its results. Among the throng, a woman screamed and tore her hair, sobbing for word of her daughter. 

“Tell us whether she’s alive,” the woman shouted. “Can we please know whether she’s alive?” 

Ferries are the main way of 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 travelers aboard. 

Angry men thronging the port denounced authorities, claiming the ferry had been riding low on one side, and never should have been allowed out of port. 

Media reports said the ferry had undergone repairs, and had only recently returned to service after months in dock.