ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar－Madagascar is reeling from a double tragedy in which at least 85 people died after a ship hit a reef and a rescue helicopter crashed with fears for the lives of two on board that have yet to be found.
The wooden vessel－believed to be a cargo boat not authorized to carry passengers－came to grief off the island’s northeastern coast early on Monday with an estimated more than 130 people on board.
“Twenty-five bodies were found this morning near Sainte-Marie island, probably due to sea currents,” gendarmerie general Zafisambatra Ravoavy told Agence France-Presse.
Of the 85 deaths so far reported in an updated count on Thursday, five are those of children, according to the authorities. Fifty passengers have been rescued.
The vessel had set off from the village of Antseraka, heading for Soanierana-Ivongo, about 100 kilometers to the south.
Initial investigations suggested the vessel’s engine had a “technical problem”, according to Adrien Fabrice Ratsimbazafy of the country’s River and Maritime Port Agency.
He said the engine problem had left the boat vulnerable to the waves and caused it to run aground on a reef, where it took on water.
A maritime official speaking on condition of anonymity said most of the survivors had been on the bridge of the vessel. Jocelyne Kalou, who manages the Le Fumet hotel at Soanierana-Ivongo, said the local graveyard was “too small to accommodate all the bodies. They are being sent to villages in the surrounding area”.
Local mayor Alban Menavolo said he had helped to take 39 bodies by truck to the village, saying most of them were locals and he had known some of them.
Swimming to shore
Within hours of the disaster, a police helicopter that had set off from the capital Antananarivo with Police Minister Serge Gelle onboard to help with search and rescue crashed at sea.
Gelle and an officer were thrown out of the craft and survived by swimming for nearly 12 hours to reach land. They were found separately on Tuesday morning by residents on the beach at Mahambo, around 75 kilometers from the port city of Toamasina. The two others who were on the helicopter are unaccounted for.
In a video shared on social media, Gelle, 57, appeared lying exhausted on a beach chair, still in his camouflage uniform. He said he was cold but uninjured. The cause was not pilot error or mechanical failure, he said.
He added that he had used one of the helicopter’s seats as a life buoy.