STONE TOWN, Zanzibar (Reuters) - The MV Spice Islander was so overloaded leaving Zanzibar's port it started to list and passengers scrambled to get off, but most were prevented and remained aboard for Tanzania's worst maritime disaster for 15 years.
Four hours after the ferry left on Friday, Abuu Masoud got a call from relatives as the ferry started to sink. They were among the nearly 200 people who perished in the fast Indian Ocean currents.
"We were woken up by phone calls from our relatives at around 1 a.m. telling us their ship was sinking ... At around 3 a.m., they told us the vessel had tipped over and they were standing on its back waiting for assistance," Masoud said.
"They told us there were about 25 to 30 of them who were left standing on the ship. At around 4 a.m., their phones were not reachable and we haven't seen or heard from them since," said Masoud, who lost seven relatives in the accident.
Zanzibar Police Commissioner Mussa Alli Mussa said early on Saturday that more than 500 people were on the ship's manifest. According to the registrar of Zanzibar's seafaring vessels, the MV Spice Islander was licensed to carry 600 passengers.
But by Saturday evening Zanzibar police said 192 bodies had been recovered, as well as 606 survivors, plucked from the sea after clinging for hours to strewn cargo, some floating on mattresses and hanging onto a fridge.
The police said more bodies were brought later to the Maisara grounds in Stone Town, where the victims were wrapped in black blankets and laid in rows for men, women and children.
Rescue workers said the death toll was likely to rise on Sunday because more bodies were trapped in the wreckage.
The ship began its voyage in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, where it was loaded with passengers, some motor vehicles, bags of food, cement and other building materials.
When the ferry reached the Zanzibar, also known as Unguja, it was loaded with more passengers and cargo for its ill-fated voyage to the smaller Pemba island in the Tanzanian archipelago.
Some passengers began to fret as the ship started to list while still at dock.
"A few of the passengers managed to get off the ship after noticing that it was tilting," said Aze Faki Chande, a 27-year-old mother who lost her two children and sister.
"We also tried to disembark, but the ship's crew quickly removed the ladder and started sailing toward Pemba," she said, lying on a mattress between beds at the crowded Mnazi Mmoja Hospital in Stone Town.
The Zanzibar government and aid workers set up tents and emergency lights at the Maisara grounds to help relatives search for their loved ones, but sent them home shortly before 10 p.m. telling them to return in the morning.
Some hastily buried their relatives as the bodies started to decay in the humid equatorial climate. By the time people were told to leave, around 10 bodies were yet to be identified. The authorities said they would bury them on Sunday.
SLIM HOPE FOR SURVIVORS
Zanzibar residents said ships plying the Unguja-Pemba route are notoriously overcrowded and there are few, or no, inspections to ensure their safety.
"These ships are death traps, which have been brought here to finish us all," said Nassoro Abdallah Nassoro, who said he lost five relatives in the accident.
"The ships sailing to Pemba are always so overcrowded, you can't even find a place to put a foot. We've always warned that such a tragedy would happen one day, but no one was listening."
The government declared three days of mourning starting on Sunday and President Jakaya Kikwete postponed a trip to Canada.
Doctors at the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital said many of the survivors were dehydrated and suffered physical wounds from being thrown around the cargo-laden ferry before it capsized.
"I have never seen anything like this in my life. It is highly unlikely that we will find any more survivors now," Hamid Saleh, a rescue workers at the Zanzibar port, told Reuters.
"Many of those who drowned were children who were returning to Pemba ready for the start of school after celebrating Eid in Unguja," he said.
Tanzania's worst maritime disaster was in May 1996 on Lake Victoria. The MV Bukoba ferry sank with as many as 1,000 people on board. Only 114 passengers survived and the captain and eight officials were charged with the murders of 615 people.
(Editing by David Clarke and Michael Roddy)