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Divers Retrieve Bodies From Senegalese Ferry

September 29, 2002|From Times Wire Services

DAKAR, Senegal — Divers smashed the windows of a capsized Senegalese ferry and hauled out corpses Saturday as the death toll in one of Africa's worst maritime disasters reached 399 and was expected to climb.

Rescue workers retrieved hundreds of bodies, many of them schoolchildren, two days after the Joola overturned in a fierce Atlantic Ocean gale. Nearly 800 people were on board.

A Gambian navy official said about 300 bodies had been recovered and transported to the Gambian capital, Banjul. An additional 58 bodies reportedly were on the way to Dakar, Senegal's capital, bringing to 99 the total number of corpses sent there.

Officials said Saturday that 104 people, including one Frenchman, had been rescued, but they held out little hope of finding more survivors.

"I survived, but I saw my wife drown and I could do nothing to help," said Patrice Auvray of France, who was taken to a hospital in Gambia.

Most of the passengers were Senegalese. A government crisis unit set up in Dakar said 10 French, five Spaniards, two Dutch, two Belgians and two Swiss were on board, along with 20 people from Guinea-Bissau.

As hundreds of distressed relatives assembled in Dakar's port to await news of their loved ones, angry crowds demonstrated outside the city's presidential palace demanding to know how many people had died in the disaster.

President Abdoulaye Wade told the demonstrators that he understood their grief, as officials acknowledged that the boat was significantly overloaded when it capsized. Local media reports said the ferry, designed for no more than 600 passengers, was dangerously overcrowded with 796 people.

Wade said the state-owned boat, which was operated by the army, was not fit to venture into open seas.

"It was a boat designed for lakes. It was not made for the sea. The responsibility of the state is clear," said Wade, adding that the families of the victims would receive compensation.

Barricades held back crowds who stood vigil by the hundreds overnight at the main naval base in Dakar, waiting to find out, in some cases, whether whole families had perished.

"I have been waiting 22 hours for information!" Daouda Diot, seeking news of his wife, shouted at military police who were fending off distraught family members at the base.

Many of the passengers were students heading to Dakar to start the new school term. "I just had to come to see," said Amina Ndiaye, waiting at the port of Dakar for any news of her 9-year-old son, Abdoulaye, who was on board.

France, Senegal's colonial ruler, said it had lent a naval rescue plane, a military helicopter and divers, and two ships to help Senegal's military.

The Joola was on its way to Dakar from Senegal's fertile southern region of Casamance when it capsized Thursday night off Gambia, a miles-wide former British colony surrounded on three sides by Senegal.

In May 1996, at least 500 people died in the sinking of the MV Bukoba on Lake Victoria in Tanzania. In April 1994, an estimated 300 people drowned when an overloaded ferry capsized off Kenya's Indian Ocean coast.

The Senegalese ferry had been the prime means by which many citizens crossed between the north and south of their country.

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