Senegal-Gambia-Le Joola-disaster

Le Joola: Africa's worst maritime tragedy 20 years on

APA-Dakar (Senegal)

The MV Le Joola was caught up in Africa's worst maritime tragedy off the coasts of Senegal and neighbouring Gambia which claimed more than 1, 800 lives according to conservative estimates.

With just 64 survivors, the capsizing of the ship also has the lamentable distinction of being the second most serious maritime disaster of a non-military kind in human history, a rescue operation coming several daylight hours after the passenger and cargo vessel ran aground off the Gambian coast.

Since then, the event of September 26, 2002, which has been indelibly etched in the Senegalese national psyche thanks to the monstrosity of its human toll has been commemorated every year in Senegal and to some lesser extent in The Gambia where some of the tragic drama played out.

The dead and those lucky enough to go within a whisker of death as the boat sank but survived were ferried into the nearby Gambian capital of Banjul where they were admitted to the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital.

Nancy Jassey, a young house help at the time explains in a chat with APA how Banjul, a usually sleepy, slow-paced city for business was suddenly abuzz with the ''disorienting noise of tragedy'' as siren-blaring ambulances spirited victims from the beachfronts to the country's main referral hospital barely a few minutes' drive away.

''I was on my way to work in one of the homes in Banjul but on that day, there was no time for anything else other than taking in the seriousness of the accident which both Gambians and Senegalese have never been used to in the past'' Ms. Jassey, now a mother of four children adds furtively.

She says Gambian mosques and churches thereafter became a beehive of prayers by the faithful beseeching God for deliverance from the pain of the tragedy that some in The Gambia have come to view as the Senegambian titanic, evoking memories of the British passenger liner which went down in the North Atlantic on its way from Southampton in the UK to New York in the United States in April 1912. 

The Gambia is sandwiched by northern and southern Senegal and the route being plied by the MV Le Joola from Ziguinchor in the Casamance to Dakar the Senegalese capital passed through Gambian waters of the Atlantic Ocean where a tempestuous storm began soon after the second leg of the journey.   

There were an estimated over 2,000 people aboard, the boat which Senegalese authorities later said had loaded almost four times the required number of passengers and goods it was supposed to carry.

They had blamed negligence and corruption for the boat taking far more than it could safely carry.

The German-build ship which was sold to Senegal in 1990 was 259 ft 2 inches long and 39 ft 4inches wide.

With two running motors, it was fitted with state-of-the-art equipment which was the latest at the time it went down at 11pm after sailing into a storm and strong ocean waves as it reached far out to sea just off Gambian waters.

While it was going down, the fury of its thrust into the bottom of the sea had hurled some passengers into the water, giving some of them no chance of survival.

Pirogues on routine fishing activities not far from the heart-rending sight were the first to rush to the scene to rescue the few who could be saved before others who were trapped in the overturned ship disappeared from the surface of the water, sinking with stern first 13 hours (3pm) after the tragedy began. 

Witnesses at the time said many who had survived the initial capsizing of the boat later drowned because they remain trapped in the hold of the ship while a serious rescue operation only began seven hours after the first signs of distress. Of the over 700 women and young girls on board, only one survived.

Days after the tragedy recriminations had followed in Senegal for those responsible for the negligence which caused overcrowding on the boat and the Senegalese public was baying for heads to roll.

The then government of President Abdoulaye Wade had launched an investigation which found that the tragedy had involved citizens of other countries like France which conducted a probe of its own and later established that the ill-fated MV Le Joola had ventured well beyond its coastal waters limits and sailed far out to sea where it was not made to travel.

Far from blaming flaws on its make, the findings suggested that ship had suffered a series of breakdowns for which there was poor maintenance.

The ship was made to last for at least 30 years but served only 12 years, a situation blamed on its owners.

Today, memorials for those who died in the maritime tragedy stand in several sites in Ziguinchor including in the area from where the ill-fated passengers embarked on their way to their deaths.  


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