Music- and booze-filled party cruises around Lake Victoria are a rite of passage of sorts for fun-seeking young Ugandans, but the one that pushed off into the waters Saturday night seemed doomed from the start.
The rickety vessel was in poor condition and had been docked for some time before people started piling into it near Kampala, the Ugandan capital, authorities told the Associated Press. The owners of the boat did not have a license to operate and overloaded the boat well past the point of being safe.
Making things worse, rough weather had turned the water in Africa’s largest lake treacherous.
The revelers aboard — including a Ugandan recording artist and a prince — were apparently unaware of the danger until it was too late.
The trouble began about midway through the cruise, not far from shore.
About 7 p.m., the boat overturned and sank, spilling about 90 people into the lake — although some estimates have as many as 120 crammed into the vessel. Inebriated partygoers suddenly found themselves flailing in the water, facing a life-or-death scenario.
Many were not wearing life jackets, authorities said, and their panic was probably increased by their state of intoxication.
Witnesses said they heard people screaming for help, treading water or trying to swim to shore.
“They were shouting, ‘Help us! Help us!’ and the boat was sinking very quickly,” Sam Tukei, one of several men who used fishermen canoes to try to rescue people, told the AP. “By the time the police came, we had saved many people.”
Two fishing boats that came to the aid of passengers were overwhelmed with people and capsized, according to the BBC.
Government rescue teams arrived a little later, sending divers into Lake Victoria to recover at least 33 bodies over the next two days, according to Reuters.
On Monday, the third day of the recovery mission, police and government teams were trying to pull the wreckage of the boat out of the lake to determine whether more bodies were beneath it, according to police. To pull bodies out of the water, Uganda-based NBS TV reported, officials were using fishing nets.
Dozens of family members and friends spent a chunk of the weekend gathered along the shoreline, peering through a wire fence, emitting occasional screams or cries at the sight of a loved one’s body being pulled from the water, the BBC reported. Others pored over sweaters, wallets, keys and shoes, hoping to identify the dead.
Among the rescued were music artist Iryn Namubiru, according to the BBC, and Prince Daudi Kintu Wasajja, brother of the king of Buganda, Uganda’s largest traditional kingdom.
The boat was owned by a man named Templa Bissase or Bissaso and his wife, according to a statement that President Yoweri Museveni issued to the Ugandan Daily Monitor on Sunday. The boat was traveling from a private beach and had the capacity to carry 50 people — but it was unregistered, unlicensed and possibly uninsured.
The boat party’s music was turned up so loud, Museveni’s statement said, that the people aboard “might not have heard the emergency commands of the captain.”
Shamirah Nsereko, a survivor, told NTV Uganda on Sunday night that the captain repeatedly warned the passengers that the boat was taking on water and listing. They might not have heard him over the music.
“But then you’re talking to people who are so drunk,” she said.
“Suddenly we saw one of the (music) speakers fall out, that was when things had gotten really bad.”
Boat accidents are increasingly common on East Africa’s large lakes, including Lake Victoria, which is surrounded by Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and is larger than Switzerland.
Saturday’s tragedy was the second large-scale sinking on Lake Victoria in two months. In September, nearly 150 people died after a ferry carrying hundreds of people capsized on the Tanzanian side of the lake, the BBC reported. The ferry’s capacity was 100 people, but 400 had climbed aboard, many of them carrying goods for nearby markets.
Critics directed their rage at the government, which they accused of using an overloaded, undersized ferry on a busy route that crosses Lake Victoria a half-dozen times a day. Compounding problems: It was market day, and the ferry was also loaded with supplies, including heavy bags of cement and corn.
“We are really saddened and urge the government to provide a new ferry because the old one was small and the population is big,” Editha Josephat Magesa, a resident who lost an aunt, father and younger brother in the September boat tragedy, told the BBC.
But closer to Uganda, as authorities continued to pull bodies out of the water, it was unclear who, if anyone, would be held responsible for the weekend deaths.
The husband and wife who owned the boat were listed among the victims.
“Obviously, the operators of this boat will be charged with criminal negligence and manslaughter, if they have not already been punished for their mistake by dying in the accident,” Museveni said in his statement.