STONE TOWN, Tanzania — More than 240 people were killed when a crowded ferry sank off Tanzania's coast and some 600 have been rescued, officials said Sunday, figures that indicate the boat was filled beyond capacity.
Assistant police commissioner Mussa Ali Mussa, the head of police in Zanzibar, said Sunday that at least 240 people died when the ferry sank early Saturday. His comments were broadcast by state-owned channel TBC.
Relatives had claimed 192 bodies and 28 more were awaiting identification on Sunday, said Mohammed Aboud Mohammed, the minister for state in the vice president's office on the island of Zanzibar. He said around 600 people had been rescued so far and that the government was still looking for the vessel's captain.
"The government is holding the chief engineer for questioning in order to gather details," said Mohammed. "The captain of the ferry is still missing and the government doesn't know precisely the owner of the ferry."
Survivors said the M.V. Spice Islanders, which sank near the tourist destination of Zanzibar, was well beyond its official capacity of 600 passengers. Many residents angrily asked why the boat had been allowed to leave port so overloaded.
The bodies were taken to a sports field, where imams said prayers and the bodies were washed and wrapped in white according to Islamic custom. The government is paying for all funeral costs, Mohammed said.
Weeping families walked among them looking for their loved ones, falling into each others' arms if they recognized a relative or neighbor. Most of the corpses were wrapped in cloth with a photo of the face placed on the front. Some of the ship's passengers were mutilated when cargo fell on top of them when the boat began to list.
Among those still searching for news was Omar Saied, who arrived from Tanzania's commercial capital of Dar es Salaam to search for his nephew and niece, on their way to a wedding on the island of Pemba.
"I'm looking for my missing family," he said. "So far our hope has been in vain."
International charity Save the Children said it launched an emergency response for injured and traumatized children.
The charity described the "incredible bravery" of young survivors, including one 6-year-old with a lifejacket who saved his 18-month-old brother by holding on to him in the sea for four hours until they were rescued.
It said another set of brothers – aged 7 and 9 – clung to a floating freezer to stay alive.
The charity said they had been given clothes, food and clean water and that 79 out of 129 children it has cared for have been reunited with their families. The rest are in the hospital, Save the Children said.
"Children arrived at our center freezing, dehydrated and suffering from shock," said Mubarak Maman, the charity's team leader in Zanzibar. "Many had spent hours alone in the dark sea clinging onto floating luggage to stop themselves from drowning, and had lost their parents and siblings in the chaos. Others had been seriously injured or were vomiting from the sea water."
He said it was essential that the charity was there to provide crucial care and comfort, and to register the children so "none were lost in the panic."
The ferry left Dar Es Salaam loaded with building materials, mattresses and passengers, survivors said. It stopped at the island of Zanzibar and then continued on to Pemba, a top diving destination. But it began to list in the early hours of Saturday, and eventually sank in an area of deep sea and strong currents.
Most survivors drifted ashore clinging to foam mattresses or wooden planks from the ferry. Some were plucked from the water by a flotilla of pleasure craft, wooden fishing dhows and yachts which set off from the beach Saturday to search for survivors.
The number of total passengers is still unclear and officials expect the death toll to rise.
The island of Zanzibar, a top tourist destination, is observing three days of mourning. Flags are flying at half-mast and radio and television stations are playing readings of the Quran instead of music.