Former Washington State Ferry vessel capsizes off coast of Tanzania, death toll could reach 150

A former Washington state passenger-only ferry capsized July 18 in high winds between Tanzania and Zanzibar, a popular tourist destination. Stormy conditions hampered rescue efforts Thursday, as officials said the death toll had risen to at least 31. The Red Cross said at least 146 people had already been rescued. The government said more than 100 passengers were still missing a day after the MV Skagit capsized, but hopes were fading given the challenging conditions. “Search operations continue, but it is now almost impossible survivors will be found,” Zanzibar police spokesman Mohamed Mhina said. “The weather was very bad, there were big waves and strong wind.”

The MV Skagit left Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, on Wednesday en route to the island of Zanzibar. Heavy winds caused the boat to lose control and flip over just a few miles short of Zanzibar’s main port. Survivors said the ferry was overloaded. The Red Cross said the ferry was certified to carry 250 people but may have been carrying more than 280 – among them, more than 30 children. Survivors also said the crew gave them no evacuation instructions, and there was only one exit from the cabin of the vessel, trapping many passengers inside. Hamza Kabelwa, Tanzania’s head of meteorology, told the BBC that vessels had been warned not to make the crossing because of rough seas.

The Skagit was formerly a passenger-only vessel between Seattle and Vashon Island, but Washington State Ferries discontinued its foot-ferry routes and later sold the Skagit in 2011 for use in Tanzania. The MV Skagit and MV Kalama, built in 1989, were taken out of service in 2009 and eventually sold together for a total $400,000 to Scope Community Consultants of Port Coquitlam, B.C. The boats are 112 feet long and were supposed to last 25 years – so the Skagit would be in its final years of normal operating life.

Last September, more than 200 people were killed when a crowded ferry traveling between two islands of Zanzibar sank off the East African coast. Officials described it then as the worst accident in Tanzania’s maritime history.