The ministers’ resignations came shortly after Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade pledged a criminal investigation into the ferry disaster, which is being called one of the worst civilian maritime accidents in recent history.
The death toll on the armed forces-run MS Joola has risen in past days as government officials revealed that children under age five would have been admitted without tickets. Some 970 of the 1,034 people believed to be aboard are either confirmed dead or missing and presumed dead.
Transport Minister Youssouf Sakho told private radio station Sud FM earlier in the day that he resigned over the sinking of the ferry, “with the sole aim of giving the president a free hand in dealing with this matter.”
According to Reuters, government sources confirmed that Armed Forces Minister Youba Sambou, whose division ran the ferry service, also resigned over the disaster.
President Wade told CNN Tuesday that “many, many mistakes” led to the sinking of the ferry, which capsized in heavy winds and rain off the coast of Gambia, a small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal.
“There will be prosecutions of course,” the president said. “Under our law, if a person by negligence provokes an accident or the death of a person, he has to be tried. And the people that will have any responsibility will be before the courts.”
According to the German company that built it, the 12-year-old ferry was originally designed to hold 536 passengers and 64 crewmembers, indicating that the vessel was holding nearly twice the number of people it was designed to accommodate. The ship’s maintenance record is also being called into question as it recently resumed service after undergoing repairs.
But Navy Commander Ouseynou Combo told the Associated Press that “there was no problem of weight or overloading of a nature that would cause this situation,” and cited survivor reports of the ferry battling a powerful storm.
Only 64 people are known to have survived the wreck by clinging to the overturned vessel for four hours before rescue boats arrived. Rescue divers abandoned the search for additional survivors Tuesday and efforts are now focused on retrieving hundreds of bodies still trapped under the hull of the ship.
In his comments to CNN, President Wade said the government plans to compensate the families of victims, “adopt” their children and assist with their education. Most of the ferry’s victims are believed to be Senegalese nationals along with foreigners from neighboring countries.
According to Gambian television, Senegal has given fisherman and villagers permission to immediately bury bodies they find washed ashore, as health concerns rise about the handling of the decaying bodies and the possible threat of disease. Before burial, citizens must notify authorities and each body must be photographed in the hopes that relatives may later identify the bodies.
Senegal has declared three days of national mourning to remember the ferry’s victims.