RIO DE JANEIRO — A Brazilian excursion ship jammed with New Year's revelers bound for a fireworks display capsized and sank after ignoring an order to return to port, officials said Sunday. At least 51 people died.
The sightseeing ship was carrying at least 131 people--above its reported capacity of 100--and sank in 65 feet of water in Rio's Guanabara Bay about 11:45 p.m. Saturday, authorities said.
"We don't know the exact cause of the sinking, but we think it was because of excess capacity," said Maj. Oldemiro Santos of the Fire Department's maritime group in Rio de Janeiro state.
Authorities said 51 bodies have been recovered and a search for survivors is continuing. Some passengers are believed trapped in the hull of the vessel, said Col. Jefferson Cardoso de Bem, chief of the maritime group. Among the dead was the boat's captain.
The ship was so crowded that a naval vessel ordered it to return to port, but it ignored the order, said Irineu Barroso, chief of Rio's 10th police precinct. Some survivors confirmed that account, saying the ship had been stopped by officials and ordered to shore but that it set out a second time.
De Bem said he had no accurate number of survivors or of the number missing because several boats took part in rescue attempts, and survivors were taken to hospitals throughout the city.
The boat, a popular tourist attraction that offers daily cruises of the bay, was to anchor in the Atlantic Ocean so passengers could view the midnight fireworks display at Copacabana Beach. The $220-per-ticket dinner cruise was heavily promoted in local newspapers and at tourist hotels.
The double-decked ship Bateau Mouche sank between Sugar Loaf Mountain and a small island as it rounded the bend on the western side of Guanabara Bay near the ocean.
"The top deck was so crowded you could hardly move," a Brazilian woman told Brazil's TV Globo. "The boat was completely full, including lots of children. Then everything began shaking back and forth. People were shouting: 'It's going to flip over!' "
Passenger Fabricio Calo, who was rescued by a fishing boat, said: "The boat was turning and shifting. Then tables started flying, glass started crashing, and the whole boat just turned over on its side."
"This was not an accident," said one passenger, a business executive from Sao Paulo. "No effort was made to control the number of passengers who got on."
'Didn't Want to Go'
Paulo Soares, 28, a brother-in-law of the Bateau Mouche's captain, Camilo da Costa, 50, said at the mooring station: "Camilo didn't want to go out. He said the boat was overloaded, and the sea was too rough. But he had no choice. He would lose his job if he didn't sail."
A spokesman for the Sol e Mar restaurant, which organized the excursion, said at least 131 people were on board, according to an incomplete reservation list.
The spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused further comment.
The Rio newspaper O Globo reported Sunday that an American may have been on board. The U.S. Consulate said it was not authorized to give out any information about possible U.S. victims.
The vessel capsized quickly, according to passenger Hans Leutner, 56. The West German said: "It was clear that the boat was overloaded. As it was going out, it was not very high in the water.
"The boat tipped slightly to one side and did not come back," Leutner said. "In half a minute it had gone."
On television, former Planning Minister Anibal Teixeira fought back tears as he spoke of the disaster in which his wife, Maria Jose Andrade Teixeira de Souza, died.
Christine Adam, 34, said she tugged an officer's shirt to ask: "Aren't we overloaded?" Adam, a French citizen, reported that he told her not to worry.
Her husband Jean, 43, who once sailed with the French navy, said he didn't believe the flat-keeled boat was suitable for seagoing trips.
He said he had been thrown into the sea and returned to the sinking ship for his wife, a poor swimmer. He failed to find her, but the two were reunited on shore.
"She had the sort of luck you have only once in your life," Adam said. A passenger gave her a chair that she held onto until rescued by fishermen.