Hundreds of people watched solemnly Friday as body after body was pulled from a capsized ferry that Tanzanian authorities said was badly overcrowded and upended in the final stretch on Lake Victoria before reaching shore.
The death toll has exceeded 130, but witnesses feared that would rise significantly as a second day of searching neared an end.
“This is a great disaster for our nation,” President John Magufuli said. He announced four days of national mourning, urging calm in Tanzania, a country with a history of deadly maritime disasters, and ordered arrests of all responsible as a criminal investigation began.
In a televised address, Magufuli said the ferry captain, who had left the steering to someone who wasn’t properly trained, had already been detained, the Citizen newspaper reported.
The MV Nyerere’s capacity was 101 people, but the ferry was overloaded when it capsized Thursday afternoon, Tanzanian Chief Secretary John Kijazi told reporters.
At least 40 people had been rescued, he said, but the number on Friday barely rose. Dozens of security forces and volunteers wearing gloves and face masks resumed work at daybreakafter suspending efforts overnight, hauling bodies into wooden boats.
“More than 200 people are feared dead,” based on accounts from fishermen and other witnesses, because passengers had been returning from a busy market day, Tanzania Red Cross spokeswoman Godfrida Jola said. “But no one knows” just how many people were on board.
It was obvious that more bodies were trapped in the overturned ferry, Magufuli said, according to the Citizen report. He said the cargo alone far exceeded the 25 tons allowed.
Tanzanian ferries often carry hundreds of passengers and are overcrowded, and shifts in weight as people move to disembark can become deadly. Images from the scene showed the ferry’s exposed underside not far from shore.
Bodies were lined up on plastic sheeting as hundreds of people pressed near the water’s edge, watching the search efforts.
Pope Francis, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Russian President Vladimir Putin and African leaders expressed shock and sorrow.
“His Holiness Pope Francis expresses his heartfelt solidarity with those who mourn the loss of their loved ones and who fear for the lives of those still missing,” the pontiff’s condolence telegram said, according to the Vatican.
The MV Nyerere, named for former President Julius Nyerere, who led the East African nation to independence, was traveling on Lake Victoria between the islands of Ukara and Ukerewe when it sank, according to the government agency in charge of servicing the vessels.
Worried residents waited Friday for word of survivors.
“We try to make calls to friends, relatives,” said a local guide, Paschal Phares. He recalled how crowded his trip on the ferry had been last month: “Most of us were standing up. It was full.”
Accidents are often reported on the large freshwater lake, surrounded by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Some of the deadliest have occurred near Tanzania, where passenger boats are often said to be old and in poor condition.
In 1996, more than 800 people died when the ferry MV Bukoba sank on Lake Victoria. Nearly 200 people died in 2011 when the MV Spice Islander I sank off Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast near Zanzibar.
1:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with the latest death toll and the Tanzanian president’s call for the arrest of the person in charge of the ferry when it capsized.
8:55 a.m.: This article was updated with a new death toll and continued rescue efforts.
3:50 a.m.: Updated with a death toll over 100.
2:20 a.m. Sept. 21: Updated to raise the death toll from 44 to 86.
This article was first published at 11:55 p.m. Sept. 20