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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.