A ferry overloaded with people celebrating the Kurdish new year and Mother’s Day capsized in the Tigris River near the Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday, killing at least 83 people, including families, officials said.
Many of the dead were women and children who could be seen
struggling to swim against a strong current, their heads bobbing in the water
opposite restaurants and an amusement park where people had been celebrating
The death toll from the accident, which residents said was the worst in recent memory, was expected to rise as people waited on the banks of the Tigris for news of loved ones.
Col. Hussam Khalil, head of civil defense in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province, told The Associated Press the accident occurred as scores of people were out in the tourist area, known as Ghabat, celebrating Nowruz, which marks the Kurdish new year and the arrival of spring.
The boat had been ferrying people to a small island nearby.
Abdulrazzaq Falih, a rescuer with the river police of Mosul, said he pulled more than 20 bodies from the water.
“Children, women and young, what can I tell you? It was a difficult situation,” he said.
A man who identified himself as Abdul-Jabbar al-Jbouri appealed for the police to look for his wife and children.
“My wife and three daughters are in the water!” he screamed.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Saad Maan said 55 had been rescued, including 19 children.
Mosul was devastated by the war against the Daesh group, which occupied the city for three years. Iraqi forces drove the militants from Mosul in 2017 after a grueling campaign that left entire neighborhoods in ruins, and residents are still struggling to rebuild.
Videos of the ferry disaster posted online showed people struggling against the strong current. Young men who had been lunching on the banks jumped into the water with their clothes on to try and save people.
The usually tame Tigris is running high this time of year, fed by snowmelt from mountains in Turkey. The river swelled further after a rainy season that brought more precipitation than in previous years.
Khalil said the ferry sank because of a technical problem, and added there weren’t many boats in the area to rescue people.
Saudi Aziz, a 23-year-old Kurd, said he was on another ferry crossing the river. He said the stricken ferry was overloaded with around 150 people when it capsized. He said it wasn’t long before he saw people drowning, their heads bobbing up and “sliding away across the water like plastic bags.”
He said he jumped in the water and managed to save a 20-year-old girl.
“I cannot describe the scene. It’s a catastrophe,” he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi ordered an investigation and expressed deep condolences to families of the victims.
Media reports indicated that nine workers operating the ferry have been detained and an arrest warrant is out for the owner of the tourist island where it was headed.
Nowruz, or the Persian new year, dates back to 1700 BC and incorporates Zoroastrian traditions. It is celebrated across territories that once made up the ancient Persian empire, stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.