Tanzania ship sinks; 45 dead, hundreds missing

September 10, 2011 - 1:00 PM
Tanzania Ship Sinks

Tanzanian police carry bodies of children from the sea in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Saturday, Sept 10, 2011. An overcrowded ship sank in deep sea off mainland Tanzania on Saturday with about 600 people onboard, and about 370 people are believed missing or dead. (AP Photo/Sultan Ali)

STONE TOWN, Tanzania (AP) — An overcrowded ship carrying at least 600 people sank in deep sea near one of Tanzania's top tourist destinations on Saturday, leaving at least 45 people dead and some 370 more believed missing or dead. Many of the missing are children.

The ferry, M.V. Spice Islanders, was heavily overloaded and some potential passengers had refused to board when it was leaving the mainland port of Dar es Salaam for an island north of the tourist destination of Zanzibar, said survivor Abdullah Saied, who said the boat was carrying at least 600 people. It sank in an area with heavy currents in deep sea between mainland Tanzania and Pemba Island at about 1 a.m. Saturday. Boats frequently traverse the route, but travel times vary depending on the vessel.

"I realized something strange on the movement of the ship. It was like zigzag or dizziness," said 15-year-old Yahya Hussein, who survived by clinging to a plank of wood with three others. "After I noticed that I jumped to the rear side of ship and few minutes later the ship went lopsided."

Hussein said there had been many children aboard the ship.

After the ship began to list, water rushed through the main cabin and stopped the engines, said Mwita Massoud, another survivor.

About 230 people had been rescued and 45 bodies had been recovered, said Mohammed Aboud Mohammed, the minister for state in the vice president's office.

"We appeal for calm to the public. The government is doing its best it can to handle the situation. There is no need to panic," said Mohammed. In the hours after the sinking, the government strongly discouraged journalists from reporting the event and tried to restrict information about the accident.

The green and hilly island of Pemba is often described as one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world. Tanzania is heavily reliant on tourism to support its economy.

Thousands of residents mobbed the docks of Stone Town on Zanzibar, an island near Pemba, waiting for news. One man was screaming that he had lost 25 members of his family, including his sisters, his wife and grandsons. He was too upset to give his name. Many of the crowd were crying or screaming. All the shops were closed.

Seven bodies have washed up so far, said witness Abdirizak Juma.

Many of those present expressed anger that the ship had been allowed to leave port so overloaded and called on government officials to resign. They said the island should have divers and rescue boats, but it only has a small vessel to try to stop smuggling.

In 2006, another ship capsized at the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, claiming hundreds of lives.