STONE TOWN, Zanzibar (Reuters) - The death toll from Tanzania’s ferry disaster could significantly rise after it emerged there were more than 1,000 passengers aboard the vessel when it capsized last week, a senior Zanzibar official said on Monday.
Initial reports suggested the MV Spice Islander was carrying 800 people, well above the ferry’s 600 passenger capacity, when it sank in the east African nation’s worst maritime disaster for 15 years.
“We are expecting some more bodies between now, tomorrow or the day after. We managed to recover 197 bodies, but because the ship took more than 1,000 people, we expect more bodies,” Zanzibar’s second vice-president, Seif Ali Iddi, told Reuters.
More than 600 passengers were rescued from the ferry and the vice president of the semi-autonomous archipelago said he does not expect any more survivors to be found.
Iddi said South African divers were expected on Monday to start searching the wreck of the ferry at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for more bodies.
“At this time ... we don’t expect any survivors unless maybe they managed to escape to Tanga (in mainland Tanzania) or to Mombasa (in Kenya). Our hope to get survivors is very small, but we expect to get more bodies,” he said.
A team of 11 South African navy divers arrived in Zanzibar on Sunday night after officials in Pretoria dispatched them and four medical personnel to help with search and rescue operations.
“Their first task is to see whether there are any bodies which have been trapped inside the ship. Of course they have to dismantle it to get the bodies ... it is a heavy ship full of cargo and it is very deep down, almost 400 metres,” Iddi said.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said the rescue team had arrived with equipment such as chambers and oxygen gases to be used in the operation.
Rescue workers said the divers would have to battle deep waters and strong Indian Ocean currents to get to the capsized vessel.
Zanzibar Police Commissioner Mussa Alli Mussa told Reuters helicopters would sweep the coastline and sea between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania on Monday to look for survivors or bodies.
“We want to be completely sure that there are no bodies trapped inside the ship before we call off this operation,” he said.
The ferry sank at midnight on Friday, off the coast of Nungwi village, a popular tourist spot in famous for its white sand beaches and diving clubs.
Village fishermen arrived at the accident scene in the early hours of Saturday morning to rescue passengers.
Flags flew at half-mast and all celebrations and entertainment were cancelled in Zanzibar as the government announced a three-day official mourning period from Sunday.
Some Zanzibar residents blamed the disaster on negligence and corruption that pervade the east African country.
“Government officials do not carry out any routine inspections on these ships to ensure they are safe. We are risking our lives every day in these waters,” Munira Ahmed, a resident of Stone Town, told Reuters.
“Authorities look the other way while these ferries pack passengers like sardines and overload the vessels to dangerous levels.”
The leader of Tanzania’s main opposition CHADEMA party, Freeman Mbowe, urged the Zanzibar government to take decisive measures to improve marine transport safety.
“This national tragedy should serve as a timely wake up call to the government,” he said.