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Floating Bodies Are Hauled In, Divers Try to Open Hull

May 24, 1996

MWANZA, Tanzania (AP) _ As birds of prey circled overhead, rescuers wearing masks against the stench of death hauled in on Friday the bloated bodies of those who perished in Lake Victoria’s worst maritime accident.

Divers were working in shifts to carve open the hull and gain access to the hundreds of bodies of victims who were trapped below deck when the ferry suddenly went down.

Three days after the MV Bukoba sank, 92 bodies, including those of two children, floated free in the turquoise waters and were hauled into boats with ropes. In all, 120 bodies have been collected from the accident, in which at least 549 people died.

Hundreds of people, some sobbing quietly, waited at the port for the plastic-bagged bodies to be brought ashore. The smell of death wafted along rutted dirt roads as trucks and jeeps carried the dead to a soccer stadium for identification.

There, bodies were separated into tents for males and females. The Red Cross set up a third tent to provide first aid to bereaved relatives who collapsed from anxiety and the heat.

The overloaded ferry capsized Tuesday within sight of the port of Mwanza, on Lake Victoria’s southern shore. Many of those who drowned had stayed alive in an air pocket for hours, banging on the hull for help.

After seven hours, rescuers cut two holes in the hull with a blowtorch, but pulled out just three people before the ship suddenly sank. There were 114 survivors.

Beginning Saturday, the dead will be buried in a mass grave on a hill overlooking Lake Victoria.

President Benjamin Mkapa made a plea Wednesday for international help to retrieve the bodies. Divers from the ferry owner, Tanzania Railways Corp., police, navy and army are poorly equipped.

Kenya sent 16 navy divers, and the South African navy provided 30 divers, support personnel and diving medical experts. South African navy spokesman Cmdr. Stan Slogrove said it was not clear how long the operation would take.

John Antoni, the managing director of Divecon Ltd., a Kenyan salvage company that sent two divers, said they could only work for 20 minutes at a time because of the depth of the wreck. The ferry sank in 90 feet of water.

The divers were using underwater blowtorches to make a 20-square-foot hole in the hull, he said. Divers will then swim into the wreck to pull out bodies.

Rukia Shamte, chief commercial officer of the railway corporation, said Thursday as many as 700 passengers might have been aboard the vessel, which had an official capacity of 441. But she insisted the vessel’s cargo load, 8.5 tons, was well below its 80-ton capacity, and that overloading alone was not to blame for the accident.

Survivors accused the crew of taking bribes to allow passengers who had no tickets to board the Bukoba. Shamte said the claims could not be discounted.

The 195-foot Bukoba was making the 12-hour voyage from Bukoba, 110 miles northwest of Mwanza, when it went down. The 17-year-old Belgian-made ferry had recently passed a safety inspection.

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