Deadlier Than the Titanic: A Ferry Set Out With About 1,900 Aboard. Only 64 Survived.

ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal — Up on the deck, dozens of university students played cards. In the first-class cabins below, passengers watched the movie “Air Force One.” In an overcrowded third-class compartment, a teenage soccer team on its way to a tournament belted out songs.

All were aboard a ferry named the Joola when it set out 20 years ago on a 17-hour journey from a city in southern Senegal, along the west coast of Africa, headed for the capital, Dakar.

As night fell, the festivities suddenly stopped. Rain began to drum on the Joola’s deck, hundreds of passengers rushed inside, the ferry tilted left, and then it capsized — with most of the travelers trapped.

More people died on the Joola on Sept. 26, 2002, than on the Titanic, making it the second deadliest maritime wreck ever recorded in peacetime. Only 64 people survived out of more than 1,900 — on a ferry designed to carry a maximum of 580. None of the 46 babies and toddlers on board survived.

An undated photo of the Joola in a port in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. It was built to carry a maximum of 580 people, but more than 1,900 were on board when it capsized 20 years ago.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet after two decades, no one has been held accountable. Outside of Senegal, little is known about the Joola, and even in Senegal, many blame the bad weather or some uncontrollable force.

Ousseynou Djiba, a mango seller who had been transporting his goods to market and cheered on the singing soccer team that day, is buying none of that.

“Some claim that it was God’s will,” Mr. Djiba, now a schoolteacher, said in the courtyard of his modest concrete home as his young children played soccer nearby. “How can it be God’s will when there were so many human-made errors?”

Survivors and families of victims, as well as multiple investigations, say that those responsible are the Senegalese military, which operated the ferry; government officials, who ignored countless warning signs; and the country’s top leaders, whose slow reaction meant that the first rescuers did not reach the Joola, stranded less than 90 nautical miles from Dakar, until 17 hours after it capsized. Many passengers were still alive, but rescuers lacked the equipment to save them.

Neither Senegal’s navy, military or transportation ministry responded to multiple requests for comment.

The survivors and victims’ families are still fighting to have the boat raised so they can bury their loved ones. Four cemeteries hold more than 550 victims, but most remain 59 feet deep in the Atlantic.

“The swell has been hitting these souls for the past 20 years,” said Elie Jean Bernard Diatta, whose brother Michel was the soccer coach who died with all his players. “They speak to us in dreams, and they ask for one thing only, to rest in peace underground.”

A photo and the diploma of Michel Diatta, former international player and soccer teacher, are seen in the family house in Ziguinchor.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

Countries in Africa and Asia have experienced a series of horrific passenger ferry accidents in recent years, including South Korea in 2014, Tanzania in 2018 and Cameroon in 2019.

But in Senegal, frequent accidents on small boats navigating the country’s rivers and coastline lead many to ask if anything has changed since the Joola disaster.

When it began sailing in 1990, the 260-foot-long Joola was an answer to a fluke in Senegal’s geography. The Casamance region, in the south, is separated from central and northern Senegal by Gambia, a thin strip of a country stretching from Senegal’s coastal west to its center. The cheapest way for residents of Casamance to reach the capital, Dakar, and the rest of the country was either on a damaged road on the east or by sea on the west.

But Casamance had undergone a separatist rebellion, and attacks on the roads made the boat journey safer. In 1995, the military took over the Joola, saying it needed to check passengers’ identities.

Yet the ferry was regularly overcrowded.

As it departed from Ziguinchor, Casamance’s largest city, the Joola was already tilting.

The capsized Joola surrounded by fishing boats participating in the rescue effort in September 2002.Credit…French Navy, via Associated Press

To escape the hot, overcrowded rooms, many stayed on the upper deck, including dozens of students chatting, or flirting far from the eyes of conservative parents. They were returning to Dakar for fall semester since Casamance did not have its own university, which many blamed on the central government’s discrimination against the region.

One of them was Ousmane Keita, a first-year geography student who knew the Joola well, having worked on the carved wooden boats that load merchandise onto the ferry.

“The journey was a good time to talk about October’s exams and catch up with high school friends,” Mr. Keita, now 45 and a soft-spoken father of two young children, said on a recent evening, lowering his voice as he recalled the events of that day.

As night fell, in the restaurant below, a singer impersonating Senegal’s most famous musician, Youssou Ndour, was giving a concert.

But clouds and strong winds were approaching the Joola. Only one of its two engines was functioning, later reports found.

Mr. Djiba, the mango seller, had hoped to sleep pillowed on a pile of life jackets on the boat, but a guard dislodged him, so he went into the restaurant. More passengers, like Mr. Keita, rushed inside when rain started after 10 p.m.

As the Joola tilted sharply to the left, water poured in through some open portholes. The freight and vehicles in the garage, all loose, slid from starboard to port, and a large generator came untied, rocking the boat and plunging it into darkness.

People scrambled to cling to whatever they could. But some fell as the boat tipped steeply.

Mr. Keita, the geography student, tried to escape through a corridor leading outside, but the slope had become too steep. The Joola was filling with water. “When the boat was almost vertical, I swam upward,” he said. “People were screaming, and suddenly they were silent. The water had submerged them.”

Ousmane Keita, 45, a former geography student who was going to Dakar for October exams, remembers swimming for his life when the Joola “was almost vertical.”Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

Of the 450 students aboard the Joola that day, he was one of six who survived.

The ferry capsized within minutes off the coast of Gambia. Its 1,400 tons and four decks became a deadly trap.

In the restaurant, Mr. Djiba jumped out of a porthole and plunged into the ocean. He fought to cling onto the hull of the capsized ferry. But it was covered in algae and too slippery.

The water tasted like fuel oil. High waves kept tossing him off, swallowing other passengers one after another, their screams fading in the dark.

Then, from below, two hands grabbed Mr. Djiba’s feet as he was losing his energy in towering waves. “I had to go underwater to get rid of him,” he said. “At some point, he let go.”

The life rafts and jackets Mr. Djiba had rested on were still tied on the upper deck, but were now 39 feet deep. Ismaila Ndaw, a retired diver from the Senegalese Navy who had overseen security on the Joola until a few days before it capsized, recalled in an interview that the life preservers had intentionally been tied tightly together so passengers could not take them.

“It was a mess: Any time there was a small incident, everyone would rush to take one,” he said.

As Mr. Djiba drifted away from the wreck, he spotted a white shape bobbing toward him. It was one of the few loose life jackets, kept by military crew members in their cabins. A dead passenger was draped in it.

“I wanted to keep the body around me so we could bury it, but it slipped straight away,” Mr. Djiba said. He clung to the life jacket.

A survivor, Ousseynou Djiba, standing in doorway, said of the disaster, “How can it be God’s will when there were so many human-made errors?”Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

About 20 passengers had managed to climb on to the hull and stayed there for hours, one said in an interview. They heard shouts from below: Passengers were alive in some air pockets that kept the boat afloat.

But no alarm had gone off, and no distress call had been sent to Dakar or Ziguinchor, investigations later found. Only around 7 a.m. did the authorities learn about the disaster from passing boats.

Even so, they took hours to react. The Senegalese Air Force did not send search-and-rescue aircraft until almost noon, according to a report by Senegalese investigators. Instead, fishing boats collected the first bodies and rescued the survivors.

Mr. Ndaw, the diver, was one of the first rescuers. When he reached the vessel in the afternoon and entered it from the restaurant, he faced hundreds of bodies, some still holding hands.

He made his way toward the bow and reached the first-class cabins, which were sealed and had not been flooded. There, some passengers waved their hands through the port windows. But Mr. Ndaw said they were not equipped with welding torches to pierce the hull, and opening the cabin doors would have caused the floating boat to sink.

None of the passengers that Mr. Ndaw saw alive in the cabins were saved, he said.

Ismaila Ndaw, a retired Senegalese naval officer. As part of the response team, he said, the order he had received was to recover the bodies.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

The order he had received, he said, was to recover the bodies, which he and his colleagues did over the following 10 days. He and other response team members, as well as the survivors, still suffer from depression and sleeping disorders. Mr. Ndaw compulsively scratches his nostrils, a tic he said he had developed “because of the smell.”

​​The welter of errors that led to the tragedy are by now well documented: the Joola didn’t have a sailing license; its crew never contacted the weather forecaster before setting off; the captain regularly failed to ensure that the ferry was balanced.

Yet a Senegalese prosecutor closed an investigation into the disaster a year later, deciding that only the captain — who died — was responsible. A judicial inquiry in France, where 18 victims were from, was dropped in 2014.

The authorities instead offered about $15,000 in compensation to each survivor or victim’s family, on the condition that none sue the government.

Twenty years later, the city of Ziguinchor, which lost nearly 1,000 inhabitants on the Joola, has partly moved on. A university opened in 2007 to offer local students an alternative to one in Dakar. A new ferry replaced the Joola.

Passengers enter the new ferry Aline Sitoe Diatta boat on their way to Dakar in the port of Ziguinchor, on Thursday.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

Mr. Keita tried to resume his geography studies after the calamity, but spent a month in a psychiatric unit. He relapsed on the sixth anniversary, when a government minister at a ceremony commemorating the event said, as Mr. Keita recalled, that it was time to “move on from this anniversary thing.”

Triggered, Mr. Keita threw himself in the nearby Casamance River, was rescued and hospitalized again. Now the owner of a cellphone shop, he has never traveled by sea or river again.

“I am not strong enough to deal with the boat yet,” he said.

A museum being built in Ziguinchor to memorialize the tragedy is still unfinished. Divers recently collected objects from the wreck to exhibit. In the cabins and in the boat, said Mr. Ndaw, the skeletons are still there.

The Kantene cemetery in Ziguinchor, Senegal, has 42 graves of victims of the wreck. Artists paid tribute to the deceased by painting on the walls this year.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

Mady Camara contributed reporting.

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