It Was Worse Than the Titanic. You Likely Haven't Heard of It

The Joola capsized 20 years ago
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 2, 2022 4:00 PM CDT
It Was Worse Than the Titanic. You Likely Haven't Heard of It
The Joola departed Ziguinchor bound for Dakar.   (Getty Images / PeterHermesFurian)

As far as maritime disasters go, the Titanic stands alone—at least in our minds, but not in the history books, at least as far as victims go. In a piece for the New York Times, Elian Peltier revisits the Joola, the passenger ferry that departed on a 17-hour journey along Senegal's coast toward the capital of Dakar on Sept. 26, 2002. It wouldn't make it. Passengers streamed below deck as rain started that evening. Then the ferry listed toward the left and capsized. There were just 64 survivors among the 1,900 aboard; every baby and toddler perished. (Roughly 1,500 people died on the Titanic.) The ferry had a maximum capacity of 580 passengers. "Yet after two decades, no one has been held accountable," writes Peltier. "Outside of Senegal, little is known about the Joola."

The Senegalese military ran the ferry and had tied together the boat's life jackets so they couldn't be taken by skittish passengers who would reportedly grab them over "small incidents." The result was that they ended up unavailable some 39 feet under the water. Some still-alive passengers ended up trapped underwater, too. One rescue diver at the scene recalls coming upon people in the sealed first-class cabins. He hadn't been given the equipment necessary to access them; all ended up dying. A Senegalese prosecutor closed the investigation into the disaster in 2003; victims' families were given $15,000 apiece, so long as they agreed not to sue. Many still want to see the boat raised so that the victims' remains can be buried. Only about a third of the bodies were recovered. (Read the full story, in which Peltier speaks with one of six students aboard who survived.)

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