At least 200 people, including dozens of children, are missing feared drowned after a ferry sank off the coast of Sierra Leone, officials in the West African country said on Thursday.
At least 241 passengers were on board the vessel when it sank on Tuesday night in stormy conditions southeast of the capital Freetown, but the overall number could be more than 300, said Deputy Transport Minister Osmond Hanciles.
Divers who located the sunken vessel Thursday said many bodies may be trapped inside the wreckage. Witnesses said a total of 34 bodies had been brought ashore.
Police said 37 people had survived the disaster, which happened when the ferry was overwhelmed by torrential rains and heavy seas and sank in a matter of minutes, survivors said.
Alfred Yanka, a senior local official in the coastal village of Shenge near where the boat sank, said the vessel had been located by rescue divers at nearby Monkey Island, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the capital Freetown.
"We are busy trying to recover more bodies," Yanka told AFP by mobile phone. Officials said earlier that the search operation was being hampered by heavy rains.
The vessel was on its way from Shenge to Tombo, a fishing port south of Freetown.
Relatives of some of the survivors have bitterly criticised what they said were long delays in mounting a rescue effort.
Musu Conteh, a parent of one of the missing children, told journalists it took some 10 hours for authorities to mount a search operation after a survivor had raised the alarm by swimming to shore with the aid of a five-gallon plastic container.
Survivors said the boat was carrying many parents and their children who were travelling to schools and colleges in Freetown at the start of the academic year.
"The official list showed 241 passengers on board and these were only those who had cargoes on board and totally excluded the number of school children that were aboard," Hanciles told AFP.
"It is possible that there were over 300 people on board," the deputy minister added.
A trader who survived the disaster, Sarian Kamara, told AFP by telephone from hospital in the southern port of Tombo the accident happened "within minutes when the storm struck. I'm thankful to be alive."
"The boat was tossed around like a piece of paper," said another survivor, Alimamy Bangura.
Information Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said the circumstances leading to the accident "will be thoroughly investigated."
"President Ernest Koroma feels very sad about the incident and he wants it to be known that the military and the navy did all that they could to make sure they took part in the effort to rescue the passengers. We are sending the condolences of the country to all," he added.
Samuel Bangura, harbour master of Tombo, one of the ports visited by the vessel, said "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.
Boat accidents are frequent during the West African country's rainy season, and locals say many vessels used to ferry passengers around the coastal islands lack basic security equipment like life vests.
Source: AFP Global Edition