By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
STONE TOWN, Zanzibar (Reuters) - Survivors of a ferry that capsized off Zanzibar overnight killing at least 192 passengers said the vessel was overcrowded and appeared to be in trouble even before it started its ill-fated voyage.
Aze Faki Chande, a 27-year-old mother who lost her two children and sister in the accident, said the ferry capsized at 1 a.m. (6 p.m. EDT) when many passengers were asleep.
"The ferry was clearly faulty even before we started the journey at the Zanzibar port on Friday night. It was leaning to one side," Chande told Reuters, lying on a mattress between beds at the crowded Mnazi Mmoja Hospital in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
"A few of the passengers managed to get off the ship after noticing that it was tilting. We also tried to disembark, but the ship's crew quickly removed the ladder and started sailing toward Pemba," she said.
The ferry, MV Spice Islander, set sail on Friday evening from Zanzibar to Pemba island 40 km (25 miles) away carrying at least 800 passengers and laden with cargo.
Chande said she was sleeping in the first class cabin with her son aged six, four-year-old daughter and sister when the strong currents between Zanzibar and Pemba rocked the ship -- and it started sinking.
"All of a sudden, people started screaming and shouting. My sister ran to the deck with my daughter and I remained with my son in the cabin as the ship started swerving," she said.
"I was then hit by a wave and thrown overboard ... my son was pulled from my grip and I haven't seen my two children or my sister since."
SEVEN HOURS IN THE SEA
She and a group of other survivors managed to hang on to a single life jacket and some floats for about seven hours at sea until they were rescued the next morning, she said.
"We watched as the ferry sank before our own eyes ... Some say my son also survived the accident, but I have not seen him yet," she said.
Doctors at the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital said many of the survivors were dehydrated and suffered physical wounds from being thrown around the cargo-laden ferry before it capsized.
An 11-year-old girl who survived the disaster, Lailat Mohamed, was too weak to speak from her hospital bed with an intravenous drip still in her arm. Her relatives said she was severely traumatized and had suffered internal injuries.
Another survivor, Mohamed Mussa Said, also told Reuters the ferry was overcrowded and appeared not to be seaworthy.
"There were too many of us onboard and it was full of cargo. Some of my relatives who were with me in the ship are still missing," he said briefly and headed to the Maisara grounds where tens of thousands gathered to identify dead bodies placed in separate rows of men, women and children.
The bodies were wrapped in black blankets, with stickers only marking the number and gender of the victims, their clothes placed alongside to help relatives identify them.
The Zanzibar government and aid workers set up tents and emergency lights at the Maisara grounds as night fell and thousands of people continued to identify the dead.
"The exercise of identifying victims of the ferry accident as well as the rescue operation itself at sea will continue throughout the night. More bodies have also been recovered tonight," Zanzibar police spokesman Mohamed Mhina told Reuters.
Nearly 200 bodies have been recovered so far and more than 600 were rescued from the ferry. The vessel was licensed to carry a maximum of 600 people.
(Editing by David Clarke and Peter Graff)