On September 26, 2002, the Le Joola, a Senegalese ferry capsized about 35km of the Gambian coast. It had been carrying 1,863 people, more than three times the number of passengers that was legally permitted on the vessel.
It was a blow to Senegal, a disaster greater than the Titanic yet even right here in Africa, it is rarely remembered. This despite the fact that the Titanic sunk almost 105 years ago while Le Joola sunk just 15 years ago.
Le Joola Facts
- The Le Joola was named after the Jola people of Senegal.
- The ferry was constructed in Germany. It began sailing in 1990
- The ferry was 79 m (259 ft 2 in) long and 12 m (39 ft 4 in) wide, had two motors and was equipped with some of the latest safety equipment available at the time of the disaster
- It travelled twice a week, often carrying traders – women who wanted to sell mangoes and palm oil on the market of Dakar.
- Shortly before the disaster, the ferry had been out of service for almost a year undergoing repairs which included replacement of the port side engine
- The ferry linked Ziguinchor – the capital of Casamance – to Dakar and so many of the victims of the disaster came from the Casamance region; the whole of Senegal was traumatized.
The Le Joola Disaster
As mentioned previously, Le Joola was 35 km off the Gambian coast when it capsized but it was about 11 hours away from the coast where it was only permitted to be a maximum of 6 hours away from the coast and licensed to carry no more than 535 passengers.
By 10 pm on the fateful day, the last call was broadcast to the maritime security centre in Dakar. The call reported that the travelling conditions were optimum. By 11 pm, however, the ship had sailed into a storm off the coast of the Gambia. The rough seas and winds combined to capsize the ferry, throwing passengers and cargo alike into the sea. According to reports, this great destruction was concluded in less than five minutes.
The capsizing of the ship surely led to the death of many of the passengers but a large number was also likely to have survived. A lot of the survivors however did not stand a chance in the face of the terrible response time. Government rescue teams only arrived the scene the following morning. Local fishermen are to be thanked for rescuing some of the survivors in the hours before the government rescue team arrived. In the end, only 64 survivors were recorded from over 600 passengers. A 15-year-old boy rescued by the fishermen confirmed that there were still many people trapped inside the ship and reports persisted of noises and screaming emanating from within.
One of the only 64 survivors, Patrice Auvray, published a book on the tragedy in 2002 called Souviens-toi du Joola. An excerpt from it reads;
“I was to be called Number 35. I was to be another anonymous victim, like all these people whose families don’t know where or how to grieve. I was to be buried in the African jungle and forgotten.”
Le Joola Aftermath
After Le Joola sank, families organized themselves into citizen groups and tried to get justice to the dearly departed but that would prove impossible. Some government officials including the then Prime Minister, Mame Madior Boye, were held responsible but they were never brought to trial leaving the families of the victims feeling cheated. A year after the disaster, the captain of the ship, who died in the accident, was held solely responsible.
Yet another point for pain and anger at the government is the fact that the wreck has never been excavated and still remains at the bottom of the sea. Every year, events are organized to commemorate the victims of the disaster but they are never sponsored by the Senegalese government.
Even reparations that are often common in these sort of disasters have never been given and the families continue to fight for such. The families have also been asking for an official memorial for the victims to be built.
Le Joola is still thought to be the second worst passenger vessel loss of all time. The worst is the DONA PAZ in the Philippines in 1987 with over 4,000 lost and after Le Joola probably comes the TITANIC in 1912 (with 1,563 lost).