Survivors who swam to safety after their overcrowded boat capsized on a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo said fishermen refused to help drowning passengers, instead looting the goods aboard the burning vessel and beating people with oars.
At least 200 people are feared dead from the disaster in southern Congo, one of two deadly boat accidents in as many days.
Seventy other people died in another weekend accident in the country’s north-west.
Romaine Mishondo, who survived the fiery boat sinking in southern Congo, said that the vessel was so crowded it reminded her of “a whole market in the village full of people.” The boat had stopped to pick up even more people just 10 minutes before a fire broke out.
As people began jumping overboard, nearby fishermen ignored the passengers’ pleas for help.
“Fishermen attacked the boat and started beating passengers with paddles as they were (trying) to loot goods,” she said. “The fishermen refused to save passengers, instead taking goods into their (boats). ... I survived because I hung onto a jerry can until another vessel passed by the scene and rescued us.”
Francois Madila, an official from the navigation department in the province, said police arrested two crew members and were investigating the capsizing, which took place near the Central African nation’s border with Angola.
The passenger list appeared to have disappeared in the fire.
Fabrice Muamba, who said he was on the boat when it caught fire on Saturday night on the Kasai River, said he thought only 15 people aboard were able to swim to safety.
Boat owner Mwamba Mwati Nguma Leonard said a survivor and an employee called to tell him that the vessel caught fire when workers spilled fuel and ignited the engine.
He said he had asked police to arrest the boat’s managers as he believes they employed unskilled workers.
The boats that traverse Congo’s rivers are often in poor repair and filled beyond capacity. The industry is not well-regulated and operators are known to fill boats to dangerous levels. Still, many people prefer to take boats even if they do not know how to swim because there are few paved roads in this vast country of jungles.
The capsizing in southern Congo is the deadliest of several boating incidents reported this year in the country.
Earlier the same day, a boat on a river in Northwest Equateur Province hit a rock and capsized, an official said.
She said more than 70 people were believed dead among 100 estimated passengers. Officials are investigating why the boat was travelling at night without a light.
In July, officials said at least 80 people died when a boat ferrying about 200 passengers to Congo’s capital capsized after hitting a rock.