dry footing

MV Le Joola

MV Le Joola was a Senegalese government-owned ferry that capsized off the coast of Gambia on September 26, 2002. The disaster resulted in the deaths of at least 1,863 people. The sinking of the ferry Joola is thought to be the second-worst non-military maritime disaster in number of lives lost. The first is considered to be the in 1987 with an estimated number of over 4000 dead. The , which sank in 1912 with 1503 lives lost, would be third according to the World Almanac and the New York Times.

The ship

The ship was named Le Joola after the Joola (Dyula) people of southern Senegal. It was constructed in Germany and was put to sea in 1990 to replace the Casamance Express ferry . The ship was 79 meters long and 12 meters wide, had two motors and was equipped with some of the latest safety equipment available at the time of the disaster. Usually the ferry traveled twice a week and often included women who wanted to sell mangoes and palm oil on the market of Dakar. However, the ship had been out of service for almost a year undergoing repairs which included replacement of the port side engine. According to information released after the disaster, the ship was built to carry a maximum of 580 passengers and crew. The estimated number on board at the time of the disaster was 1,863, over triple the rated capacity. However, some Senegalese based organizations put the actual number as being over 2,000 people on board.

Last voyage

On September 26, 2002, the ferry Joola set sail from Ziguinchor in the Casamance region on one of its frequent trips between southern Senegal and the country's capital Dakar. It was about 1:30 p.m. At the time of voyage the ship was designed to carry approximately 580 passengers. In all, almost 2,000 passengers are believed to have been on board, including 185 that boarded the ship from Carabane, an island where there was no formal port of entry or exit for passengers. The exact number of all passengers remains unknown but there were 1046 travelers with tickets. The remaining number comes from people who did not hold tickets either because they weren't required to (children aged less than 5) or because they embarked on a trip without paying for it as was common with the Joola.

The last call from the ferry staff was broadcast to a maritime security center in Dakar at 10 p.m. and reported good travel conditions. At around 11 p.m., the ship sailed into a storm off the coast of Gambia. As a result of the rough seas and wind, the ferry quickly capsized, throwing passengers and cargo into the sea. Detailed reports indicate that this happened in less than five minutes.

Two French passengers, Patrice Auvray, 41, and his friend Corinne, 41, successfully got out of the boat, but Corinne was already weakened by sickness and couldn't continue swimming. She died thirty minutes later. Only one lifeboat was deployed and was able to transport 25 people. In the dark of night, 22 others were able to find a dry footing on the bottom of the capsized ship that wasn't yet completely submerged.

While many of the ship's passengers may have been killed during or immediately following the capsizing, a large number probably survived only to drown whilst awaiting rescue. Government rescue teams did not arrive at the scene until the morning following the accident, although local fishermen rescued some survivors from the sea several hours before. Of the estimated 2,000 passengers, only around 64 survived including only one woman (Mariama Diouf, who was pregnant at the time) from more than 600 female passengers aboard.

Some time before official rescue arrived, it was local fishermen with pirogues in the area of the tragedy who started the first efforts to pull survivors out of the water. They were able to rescue a few people but also recovered several bodies that were floating around the Joola. At 2 p.m., they rescued a 15 year-old boy. The boy confirmed that there were still many people trapped alive inside the boat; there were reports of noises and screaming coming from within.

The Joola remained capsized but afloat until around 3:00 p.m., at which point she finally slid beneath the water's surface, taking with her those who were unable to get out of the ship.


The huge loss of life caused by the tragedy was a great shock to many in Senegal and immediately led to calls from the press and public for an explanation of the disaster. The Senegalese government established an inquiry to investigate. The French courts also launched a probe into the disaster as several French nationals were among the dead. According to many sources now available, the accident was caused by a variety of factors, including possible negligence. While rough seas and wind were directly responsible for the capsizing, the ferry was built only to be sailed in coastal waters but was sailing beyond this coastal limit when it capsized. Overcrowding is one of the most commonly mentioned factors in the disaster, both for the capsizing and the high number of deaths. Due to the heat and claustrophobic conditions below deck, as many passengers as possible usually slept on the upper level making the ship more unstable. The ship was only 12 years old and was built to be in service for at least 30 years but had suffered a number of technical problems in the years before it capsized. These problems are now attributed to poor maintenance by its owners and not to any design or manufacturing flaws.


At least 1,863 people died, although the exact number will never be known due to a large number of unticketed passengers on board. Among the dead, were 1,201 men (61.5%) and 682 women (34.9%). The gender of 70 victims couldn't be determined. The dead included passengers from at least 11 countries including Cameroon, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, France, Spain, Norway Belgium, Lebanon, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

On Saturday morning, Sept. 26, Haïdar El Ali, an environmental activist born in Senegal from Lebanese parents, and his diving team explored the disaster area but saw no survivors, instead many bodies of men, women and children inside the Joola. 300 corpses trapped inside were freed. Another 100 that were around the ship were also recovered. Only 551 dead bodies were recovered in total. Of that number 93 were identifiable and given back to families. The remaining bodies were put to rest in specially constructed cemeteries in Kabadiou, Kantene, Mbao and on the Gambian coast. National funerals were held on Oct. 11, 2002 at the Esplanade du Souvenir in Dakar.

Aliou Cisse and Birmingham City Football Club

Senegalese footballer Aliou Cisse lost several members of his family in this tragedy, and his then club Birmingham City, in England, displayed coloured cards, which showed the Senegalese flag, to remember their midfielder's family, and all the other people who lost their lives.

Reparations and memorials

The Senegalese government initially offered families a payment of around US$22,000 per victim and fired several officials, but no one has ever been prosecuted, and the official report was closed a year after the disaster. Officials, including high ranking members of the Armed Forces of Senegal were moved to other posts were charged with failure to respond quickly enough the the disaster, but little light was ever cast upon those responsible for allowing the ferry to be overloaded or poorly maintained. The Prime Minister at the time, Mame Madior Boye was dismissed by President Abdoulaye Wade after the disaster with much of her cabinet, reportedly for mishandling the rescue. In the 2007 election, Wade's rival and former Prime Minister, Moustapha Niasse, accused Wade of covering up their responsibility for the disaster. Families of victims, many of whom have been unwilling or unable to claim reparation, have continued to be highly critical of the government over its handling of the rescue, the operation of the ferry which led to the disaster, and the reparation process.

The families of French victims refused the 2003 reparations package, and have perused the Senegalese authorities in French courts. On 12 September 2008, a French judge handed down an indictment of nine Senegalese officials, including Former Prime Minister Boye and former Army Chief of Staff General Babacar Gaye. Senegalese official and popular reaction against these charges coming from the former colonial power have been hostile, with the Senegalese government saying they may pursue an indictment of French judge, Jean-Wilfired Noel in return.

See also


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