May 20, 2024

By John Daziel
One hundred and ten years ago, in April of 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg and two and a half hours later sank. Of the roughly 2,200 persons onboard, about 700 survived, 1,500 were lost. Within minutes of the fatal collision the Titanic sent out a distress message, a rescue ship came at full speed, arriving an hour after the Titanic sank. The Titanic remained upright until she sank, and taking well over two hours to sink, allowed adequate time to abandon ship.
Had the Titanic been equipped with sufficient lifeboats, had the owner, builder, regulatory authorities, passengers and crew not been influenced by the marketing hype that she was ‘unsinkable’ (she was very safe, but not unsinkable), had the available lifeboats been filled, many more would have been saved, perhaps all would have survived. Subsequently, international regulations were adopted that substantially improved the safety of shipping.
Twenty years ago, on Sept. 26, 2002, the Senegalese coastal ferry Le Joola capsized with the loss of over 1,800 lives, and only 64 survivors. The ship capsized in five minutes but remained floating upside down for several days. No radio distress message was sent, life-rafts and life-boats were not deployed; despite being only 17 miles from shore and surrounded by fishing boats, rescue was many hours in coming.
People in the water, or standing on the bottom of the upturned ship, could be rescued; but hundreds trapped in air pockets inside Le Joola could not. Their screams were heard for more than a day, until the ship finally sank.
Senegal is a west African nation, largely separated in two by another nation, the Gambia. The capital is Dakar, the site of the University and most business and economic opportunities. The easiest way to reach Dakar from the southern portion, the Casamance, was on the ferry Le Joola. The Le Joola was a handsome looking ship 80 metres in length that had been in service since 1990 and was built in Germany according to applicable safety and strength requirements of a reputable Classification Society. She sailed once or twice a week from the river port of Ziguinchor to Dakar, an 18-hour trip, making one island stop along the way. Originally the ship was managed by a commercial firm, familiar with the operation of commercial ships. However, for the six years prior to her sinking she was managed and operated by the Navy.

On Sept. 26, 2002, the Le Joola loaded at the port of Ziguinchor. As this was near the start of the university term, about 500 students from the region boarded to attend school in Dakar. Thirty European tourists also boarded along with about 1,000 other local people making their way to Dakar for various reasons; lining the upper decks as they sailed at about one o’clock. The ship also carried a partial load of vehicles and cargo on the main deck, as well as a partial load of fuel and of water ballast. As Le Joola sailed it was noted that she listed to the side, the list estimated at 10 degrees. A few hours later she reached the island of Carabane, where several hundred more people (including students) boarded. Le Joola hoisted anchor and sailed from Carabane about 6 p.m. with about 2,000 people on board, all to meet their fate with destiny.
As the Le Joola sailed, some of the passengers noticed storm clouds on the horizon and heard distant thunderclaps. The forecast predicted wind gusts of 35 to 45 knots (65 to 85 km/h.) and seas up to two metres in height (some waves may be much higher), not comfortable for all the passengers, but nothing unexpected on this voyage, and nothing any seaworthy ship should not be able to weather. In fact, many pirogues, local canoe like fishing craft, perhaps 15 metres in length, were fishing in the area at the time.
After the ship sailed, many of the passengers were in the restaurant enjoying the music and dancing. This continued well into the night.
Others, especially the mothers with young children, were in their communal accommodation areas down below. These areas were crowded, hot and stuffy, portholes were opened to allow in fresh air. As the storm approached some began to feel seasick and made their way to the open deck. A few others were on deck to avoid the crowds below. As 11 p.m. approached, all passengers and crew were blissfully unaware that in a few minutes most of them would be dead.
At about 11 p.m., Le Joola heeled over to port, just a little more to start with. This may have been due to the wind gusts, or some particularly high waves hitting the ship on the side, or perhaps a combination of both. But partying and dancing continued, everyone thought she would roll back upright (or at least return to the perceptible list she had sailed with). But she did not; the list continued to increase. People tended to slide to the bulkheads (walls) on the lower (port) side of the ship.
The list increased some more, then there was rumbling from below; the vehicles on the main deck that had not been secured slid against the port side of the hull. The list increased some more, then water started to pour in through the portholes on the main deck (which had been opened to alleviate the stifling heat in the overcrowded 3rd class common space on the main deck).
Very soon, Le Joola lay on her side in the water. The scenes inside the ship were horrific, hundreds of people lay on top of each other, many being crushed to death with no chance of survival, others struggling to climb vertically to the starboard (upper) side doors and windows. Some did manage to make it out of the ship, to stand on the now horizontal starboard side. Of course, the few passengers who were on, or near, the open decks had a better chance to reach the temporary refuge of the starboard side.

However, now came the next problem. Standing on the side of the ship awaiting rescue was not an option. As the upper cabins of the ship flooded, Le Joola became more top heavy. Quickly the Le Joola rolled completely over, inverted in the water, with her bottom now floating horizontally about 3 meters above the sea. All this, from blissful happiness to upside down disaster, took place in about five minutes.
The liferafts did not deploy, the lifeboats were not launched. No one had lifejackets. There was very little floating debris to grab hold of. Many, or most, of those who made it out of the ship could not swim.There was mass terror and panic in the water, as those who could barely swim grabbed onto those who could, often dragging both down to their death.
There were some sources of survival. Over a dozen survivors managed to climb up onto the bottom of the ship, helping each other up the sloping aft section by forming a human chain. A liferaft cannister was found floating, bound securely by straps. Some of those in the water managed to open it, several got inside for temporary safety. As the ship turned over so quickly, large air pockets were trapped inside the lower accommodation (now the top). Many, perhaps a hundred or more, were given a temporary reprieve, but no means of escape.
And then came another problem. When the Le Joola was sinking, no distress radio message was sent. The other modern electronic distress reporting system (EPIRB) did not work. No emergency flares were fired off. The rescue authorities did not realize there was a disaster taking place. The fishing trawlers, whose lights could be seen in the distance, did not realize there was a disaster taking place nearby. People on nearby pirogues fishing nearby were also not aware of the sinking.
The life-raft that had been opened was equipped with flares; these were set off about four in the morning, five hours after the capsize. A pirogue that had been fishing a mile or two away came, the fishermen were surprised there had been an accident, and that the Le Joola would have succumbed to the weather they continued to fish in.
The pirogue sailed to a fishing trawler a few miles distant. The captain of that trawler said he had his nets out and refused to respond. Eventually the pirogue reached a Senegalese trawler,which responded to rescue the men in the life-raft about three hours after they were first seen, and eight hours or so after the capsize.
In due course the rescue authorities in Dakar (the capital) were made aware, eventually rescue ships and aircraft were sent. The last person rescued was rescued by a pirogue at 2:45 pm, nearly sixteen hours after the capsize. Some professional divers, on their own initiative, came to help. It took the divers 17 hours in two open boats to sail from Dakar to the wreck site, arriving 30 hours after the initial capsize. Despite little hope of rescuing anyone, they dived into the wreck. In the air pockets (now depleted of oxygen) they found a few who seemed to have a spark of life, but it was too late, none survived. Hundreds of bodies were left trapped inside the wreck.
Of the about 2000 who sailed on the Le Joola, several hundred made it out when she capsized. But only 64 were rescued, including one European and one woman. Hundreds of bodies were recovered. Some were identified and sent to their families but hundreds more were never recovered, disappearing out to sea, or trapped inside the wreck. The official death toll was 1,863, although many believe the toll was even greater.
Properly designed and maintained, and loaded correctly, a ship is very unlikely to capsize, even in bad weather. A ship’s captain is taught the fundamentals of ship stability and is expected to know how to keep the ship upright and safe from capsizing using the ship’s approved loading conditions. In the case of Le Joola, this apparently was not the practice, stability was routinely not verified prior to departure. To a large extent she relied on fuel, water ballast and vehicles to keep her centre of gravity low.
On this voyage the fuel tanks and water ballast tanks were only partly full. On its own, this would not have been sufficient to cause her to capsize. But the number of people onboard was well over three times her rated capacity of about 600 and made worse by being carried mostly on the upper decks. Further, open portholes on the lower deck allowed the ship to start flooding once she had heeled over.
Ships are also designed to be operated upright,but on departure from Carabane, the ship had a permanent list, indicating something was amiss with stability. In addition, in the open sea it’s required that the motor vehicles carried onboard be securely lashed in place to prevent them shifting; this was not done.
Additionally, the lifesaving equipment was not properly serviced, and so did not deploy The crew apparently was not properly trained to deal with an emergency.
Ferry travel in Canada is very safe. Over 60 million passengers travel on domestic ferries in Canada each year. Many trips are a short river or harbour crossing, others a longer voyage, such as to Newfoundland and Labrador In Atlantic Canada there have been no accidents resulting in passenger fatalities in recent years.
But there have been a number of incidents reminding everyone of the importance of remaining careful and vigilant.
Some of the Domestic Ferry incidents in recent years are:
After the disaster, there was a massive public outcry over the magnitude of the loss of life, and the apparent government ineptitude. A crowd marched on the presidential palace.
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade promptly ordered an investigation report to be completed in a month. The investigation committee included, in addition to local officials, international representatives from the IMO (the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations body that deals with maritime safety), including a safety investigator from Canada. When the report, dated Nov. 4, 2002, was delivered, the president may have gotten more than he expected.
Section 7.1 of the report was titled: Immediate Causes of the Sinking: The Operator’s Failure to Comply with the Ship’s Stability Standards.
The report looked at the long-term organizational factors in addition to the immediate causes. It also looked at the bungled rescue response, and at those organizations that had management responsibility for the operation and safety of the Le Joola.
In addition to blaming the Le Joola captain for his failures, it attached responsibility much further up the management chain. This included criticism of the operator (the Navy) for having officers not trained in the operation of a commercial vessel and operation of a vessel without the required certificates on board, the national marine safety authority for not enforcing regulatory standards and allowing a substandard ship to operate in an unsafe manner, shortcomings in the weather reporting system, shortcomings in the rescue response system, and more.
In Canada the Transportation Safety Board follows the IMO Casualty Investigation Code recommendation of publishing their reports so the public can review the findings and recommendations. The Le Joola sinking investigation report of November 2002 was not published. But eventually some copies leaked into the public domain. (A revised report is currently available on the International Maritime Organization public website, released at some date to public access by the National Administration).
Sadly, Le Joola is but one of many. Some other domestic ferry disasters in the past 35 years are: the Dona Paz – Philippines (1987), 4,400 dead, 26 survivors; Spice Islander – Zanzibar (2011), 1,600 dead, 620 survivors; Princes of the Stars – Philippines (2008), 818 dead, 32 survivors; Princess Ashika – Tonga (2009), 74 dead, 54 survivors; Bultiraoi – Kiribati (Pacific Islands) (2018), 95 dead, seven survivors; and so many others. The Worldwide Ferry Safety Association estimated there were at least 18,000 deaths on domestic ferries in the first 14 years of this century.
The large international ships we see in Halifax Harbour comply with IMO’s international maritime safety standards: failure to do so could result in them being detained by Canadian authorities.
But domestic ferries, sailing within the bounds of their own country, need only comply with national standards, which may or may not meet international standards. IMO does not have authority over domestic vessels. Regulation and enforcement are left to the national authorities.
Twenty years after the sinking of ‘Africa’s Titanic,’ the Le Joola, some things have improved. A replacement ferry was built for the service in Senegal. It is understood loading conditions are strictly enforced.
At the International Maritime Organization (IMO), some countries, together with IMO’s Technical Cooperation department have been sharing the lessons they have learnt in improving domestic ferry safety with each other. Despite lack of formal jurisdiction and opposition on the grounds of national sovereignty, using its moral authority IMO has introduced a set of recommendation called Measures to Improve Domestic Ferry Safety; the Adoption of the Model Regulations on Domestic Ferry Safety. This encourages governments around the world to improve the safety of their domestic ferries, providing their citizens with safe, economic and reliable transport.
Perhaps the ghosts of ‘Africa’s Titanic’ can now rest a little easier, knowing that like the Titanic 90 years earlier, their suffering has helped lead to increased safety for others.

Editor’s note: John Dalziel P.Eng., MRINA, is an adjunct professor in Industrial Engineering at Dalhousie University. He worked half a century in the marine industry, much of it involved with marine safety. He has been invited to speak publicly on Domestic Ferry Safety, in Canada and as far afield as Sweden, Germany and Fiji.The research for this article came from public sources, particularly the book  The Sinking of the MV Le Joola, Africa’s Titanic by Pat Wiley, a wonderful, easy-to-read book that is also very humane as a result of the author’s four visits to Senegal and meetings with thirteen of the survivors. Second, the report of the Technical Commission of Inquiry on the causes of the sinking of the Joola, Nov. 4, 2002, which was obtained from a public source. The version of this report, available on the IMO website, was also consulted. In addition, online reports from various news services, such as the BBC, were also reviewed.
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