Captain blamed after Sierra Leone boat tragedy
The captain of a ferry that sank off Sierra Leone leaving more than 200 people feared drowned ignored warnings that it was about to capsize, survivors said on Friday.
A senior police officer, meanwhile, said the main cause of the disaster appeared to be overloading.
Police said only 38 people were known to have survived after the ferry, the Teh Teh, overturned and sank in just a few minutes after a storm suddenly blew up on Tuesday night.
Estimates of the numbers on board ranged from 268 to more than 300. Witnesses and officials said 37 bodies had been brought out or washed ashore.
One survivor, Alfred Smith, speaking from his hospital bed at the Waterloo Clinic near the fishing village of Tombo, said the skipper, Thaim Bundu, who went down with his ship, was “wholly responsible”.
He said Bundu “ignored all warnings to reduce cargo and passengers on board the boat and also to take refuge in a nearby creek when the approaching storm was sighted”.
Another survivor, trader Bintu Sinneh, said: “The captain was arrogant when we advised him.”
“At one point, he passed on the piloting of the boat to his assistant, who claimed to be an expert in navigating the river,” she said.
“‘Have no fear, I am in charge’, he kept on saying and it was then that the storm struck,” Bintu added.
The vessel was on its way from Shenge in the south of the country to Tombo, south of Freetown when it sank.
Assistant Inspector General of Police David Sesay told reporters that the main cause was thought to be the overloading of the wooden boat.
“The number of passengers on board was recorded at 261 but this excluded children because normally they don’t include children in the list because they are not paying.
“That’s where the conflict about the total number of people in the boat is, but I am sure it was more than 300 people on board.” Sesay added, “We are optimistic we can still find survivors for these people are good swimmers.”
Police were patrolling the sea but discouraging other people from taking part in the search because of high winds and strong currents, he said.
Samuel Bangura, harbour master of Tombo, said on Thursday that “overloading may have been responsible for the disaster as the boat had huge drums of palm oil, bags of rice, kolanuts and other goods on board”.
The boat had made several stops on the way to pick up passengers from at least 10 coastal villages when it capsized off Shenge, near the Plantain islands.
Survivors said the boat was carrying many parents and children who were travelling to schools and colleges in Freetown at the start of the academic year.
Relatives of some survivors bitterly criticised what they said were long delays in mounting a rescue after a survivor reached shore on a five-gallon plastic container and raised the alarm.
The survivors were being treated in clinics at Waterloo, Plantain Island and Shenge.
Boat accidents are frequent during the West African country’s rainy season, and locals say many vessels used to ferry passengers around the islands lack basic security equipment like life vests.—Sapa-AFP.