The state-owned ferry was on its way from southern Senegal to the capital, Dakar, when it rolled onto its side, sinking into the Atlantic Ocean at about 11 p.m., officials said.
Nearly 800 people were loaded into the ferry when it sank in heavy winds and rain off the coast of Gambia, a small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal. Thirty-two survivors have been found so far, rescued by nearby vessels that responded to the accident.
Survivors managed to stay on top of the capsized vessel for two hours until they were rescued.
“The boat went down so fast,” survivor Moussa Ndong told the Associated Press. “It was so unbelievable — in just three minutes, the boat went down.”
Marine center coordinator Mamadou Diop Thioune had little hope of finding more survivors, saying, “now, I’m afraid, it’s a matter of recovering bodies.”
Senegal called for three days of national mourning while recovery attempts continued on Friday. Families crowded into the ports to seek more information about the missing. Groups gathered to pray while they waited for news.
Speculation over the accident’s cause has raised concern among some of Senegal’s 10 million residents. Senegalese Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye reported that the boat rolled over “under the combined impact of strong gusts of winds and rain” from storms that lashed the West African coast. He added that so far, “the state of the ship has not been called into question.”
But some at the port of Dakar have claimed the ferry had been riding low on one side and should not have been allowed to leave the port. According to media reports, the ferry had recently undergone major repairs and had only recently returned to service. There were also rumors that merchandise brought by businessmen had overloaded the boat, as well as unconfirmed reports of engine failure.
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has promised an investigation into the incident.