At least 44 people have died after the MV Nyerere ferry capsized on Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, on Thursday afternoon.
The lake straddles the borders of Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, and the ferry was traveling between two islands on the lake when the accident occurred, reported CNN.
Rescue attempts were abandoned as night fell and visibility dropped, but by that stage, they had already pulled 44 bodies from the water, and rescued only 37 people. Efforts to find survivors will resume at first light on Friday morning. Some 32 rescued passengers are said to be in critical condition.
It is unknown how many people were on board the vessel, but local estimates put that number up to as high as 500, with the ferry having only a capacity to transport 120 passengers at a time. Exact numbers will be hard to come by, as the man distributing tickets is among the dead, and the ticket machine has been lost in the water, according to news.com.au.
"We pray to God to give us hope in such an accident," Regional Commissioner Adam Malima told reporters. "We pray to God to give us hope that there has not been a high death toll."With the small number of people found so far and the high number of passengers, authorities fear they will find many more dead once rescue operations are able to continue in the morning. Officials have stated more than 200 could have died in the accident. In the initial attempt to rescue passengers, two other vessels out on the lake were diverted toward the capsized ferry.
According to national ferry services operator TEMESA, the ferry was just meters from the dock when the accident occurred. A spokeswoman for TEMESA, Theresia Mwami, stated that the ferry had undergone maintenance just a few months before, during which two engines had been overhauled.
While the exact cause of the vessel capsizing is unknown at this stage, it is believed that the high number of passengers on board could have contributed, particularly if they had all moved to one side of the vessel as it attempted to dock, per BBC.
Accidents on Lake Victoria are not uncommon, with Tanzania seeing the bulk of the accidents due to old passenger boats that are in poor condition. In 1996, another ferry disaster on the lake claimed the lives of over 500 people. In 2012, at least 145 people died in Tanzanian waters while being transported to the island of Zanzibar when the boat sank.