In what many considered to be a disaster on a par with that of the ‘Titanic’ in 1912 (over 1,500 people perished) some 700 people died when the Lake Victoria passenger ship ‘M V Bukoba’ capsized on May 21 just 30 minutes before reaching Mwanza port. Only 53 people survived. President Mkapa declared three days of national mourning. Governments and individuals all over the world sent their condolences.
Eye witness survivors told how the ship was loaded with many more than its 433-passenger capacity should have allowed. At eight am, with Mwanza in sight the ship began to sway. Huge jikos, dishes and kitchen equipment in the restaurant crashed to one side; the loud bang created a panic and as people rushed to the deck the vessel turned over. Ironically, the vast quantity of Bukoba bananas the passengers had earlier asked the crew to throw overboard, later helped survivors by giving them something to cling on to in the water. There were not enough lifebelts. The vessel remained on the surface, partially buoyant. But then rescuers, who could hear trapped passengers screaming and banging, ignored the pleas of fishermen, and decided to drill a hole into the hull to rescue those trapped inside. The effect however was to release the air which had kept the hull afloat and shortly after 3 pm the boat sank.
Several hundred bodies were extracted with great difficulty by divers – people in the packed third class compartment of the ship had linked arms in solidarity before they died and it proved extremely difficult to break them free. Most of the bodies of the dead were buried in mass graves in Mwanza. An old lady in Kagera Region collapsed and died after learning that her daughter and three grandchildren had perished. One victim, a Ugandan businessman, was found to be carrying $27,000 in notes.
On May 29 the captain of the ship and eight senior officials of the Tanzania Railways Corporation Marine Department were charged in court with the murder of 615 people and were remanded in custody. They were later released. On the same day Prime Minister Frederick Sumaye announced the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry under Judge Robert Kisanga which included five other Tanzanians and six foreign experts.
On June 2 President Mkapa halted any further recovery of decomposed bodies from the wreck as this posed a health hazard to divers who had come from South Africa, Kenya and Zanzibar. 392 bodies had been recovered. At a joint service of remembrance on June 3 Chief Justice Nyalali spread a handful of soil on the lake as a burial symbol. The wreckage, which lies 27 metres below lake level, became a permanent tomb for those whose bodies could not be recovered.