(CNN) — A man who survived a ferry capsizing in Tanzania described the harrowing ordeal that left six of his relatives dead and the East African nation mourning 224 people killed.
Ochori Burana said the ferry was overcrowded with hundreds of people headed to a popular open air market when it capsized Thursday on Lake Victoria.
Moments before the tragedy, the ferry made a sharp turn and tipped to one side, throwing people and cargo into the frigid water, Burana told the state-run Tanzania Broadcasting Corp.
He jumped out just before it went down and clutched on to a car tire swaying in the waters. He used it to stay afloat for about 15 minutes until fishermen rescued him, he said.
Burana said he lost six relatives who were traveling with him.
As the nation mourned, relatives dug mass graves as colorful coffins lined the shores. Family members awaited word on their loved ones, some weeping as crews removed bodies from the waters.
Most of the remains have been identified and will be buried in one place, Transport Minister Isack Kamwele told CNN.
“Till this morning we have been able to pull out 223 bodies out of the sea,” he said Sunday. “The exercise is still going on, and at the moment we are trying to fix apparatus to lift the ferry out (onto) land.” Later on Sunday he said the number had risen to 224.
Ferry’s captain arrested
The captain of the overloaded ferry has been arrested, and all its operators will be detained for questioning, President John Magufuli said.
In an address Friday, Magufuli said the captain left the ferry’s steering in the hands of an untrained person. Initial reports indicated that overloading contributed to the deadly disaster, but an investigation will determine the exact cause, the Tanzanian leader said.
The total number killed might never be known because it’s unclear how many people were aboard the overcrowded ferry. Officials said the vessel had a capacity for 100 people but was carrying an estimated 400 instead.
The ferry was traveling from Bugolora to Ukara Island when it capsized about 650 feet from its destination.
Engineer rescued after 48 hours
Rescuers have struggled to pull out bodies from the lake. Since the ferry overturned with both luggage and people, crews had to remove cargo to get to the bodies, the transport minister said.
An engineer from the ferry was among the people rescued Saturday, Tanzania Broadcasting reported. He was among eight engineers aboard the ferry when it capsized, and he had locked himself inside an engine room since Thursday.
‘He … said he was in trouble’
Fisherman Maulid Musa said he received a phone call from a friend aboard the ferry moments before it capsized.
“He called me and said he was in trouble,” Musa told The Citizen newspaper. “That the boat he was traveling in was about to sink. I tried to ask him what was happening. He said all the passengers on board had moved to one side of the boat. Then the phone went off.”
Musa said he tried to rush to the scene to help, but there were no boats going there. He found out Friday his friend had died.
The disaster underscores the issue of dangerous overcrowding on aging ferries in the region. Ferries in Tanzania are often overcrowded, with the lack of an accurate passenger manifest complicating rescue operations.
In 2011, about 200 people died when an overloaded vessel — carrying more than 1,000 passengers despite an official capacity of 620 — hit strong winds off the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean.