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Originally published July 18, 2012 at 10:10 AM | Page modified July 19, 2012 at 7:39 PM

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Toll from former Vashon ferry sinking in Tanzania could hit 150

A former Washington state passenger-only ferry has capsized in high winds between Tanzania and Zanzibar.

The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff

Former Washington ferry capsizes off Zanzibar

12 people were killed when the MV Skagit capsized off the coast of Tanzania's island region of Zanzibar.

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ARUSHA, Tanzania — Stormy conditions hampered rescue efforts Thursday for a capsized former Washington state ferry off Tanzania's coast, as officials said the death toll had risen to at least 31.

The BBC reported the toll as at least 63, with hopes fading for at least 80 people missing a day after the MV Skagit capsized.

"Search operations continue, but it is now almost impossible survivors will be found," Zanzibar police spokesman Mohamed Mhina said. "The weather was very bad, there were big waves and strong wind."

The Red Cross said at least 146 people were rescued.

The ferry, the MV Skagit, is a former Washington state passenger-only ferry that served the Seattle-Vashon Island run. It and its sister ship were sold last year and relocated to Tanzania.

The MV Skagit left Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania, on Wednesday en route to the island of Zanzibar, a popular tourist destination.

One accident survivor, Rashid Mohamed, said heavy winds caused the boat to lose control and flip over just a few miles short of Zanzibar's main port.

"Heavy winds blew from every side," Mohamed, 24, said. "The boat swayed many times before flipping over."

Survivors said the ferry was overloaded. The Red Cross said the ferry was certified to carry 250 people but may have been carrying more than 280 — among them, more than 30 children.

Survivors also said the crew gave them no evacuation instructions, and there was only one exit from the cabin of the vessel, trapping many passengers inside.

A safety officer with the Zanzibar Port Corp. said the vessel was overturned, bottom-up.

Tatu Kwiyela, 35, from mainland Tanzania, survived the sinking but lost her 9-month-old son.

"I was swept away by strong waves," she told Reuters. "I tried to hang on to him, but he disappeared into the sea."

Hamza Kabelwa, Tanzania's head of meteorology, told the BBC that vessels had been warned not to make the crossing because of rough seas.

Family members thronged the port for news of missing loved ones.

The Skagit was formerly a passenger-only vessel between Seattle and Vashon Island, but Washington State Ferries discontinued its foot-ferry routes and later sold the Skagit in 2011 for use in Tanzania. The MV Skagit and MV Kalama, built in 1989, were taken out of service in 2009 and eventually sold together for a total $400,000 to Scope Community Consultants of Port Coquitlam, B.C., according to an announcement by Washington State Ferries.

Washington state had tried before that to sell the Skagit and Kalama on eBay, for $300,000 each. The boats are 112 feet long and were supposed to last 25 years — so the Skagit would be in its final years of normal operating life.

Last September, more than 200 people were killed when a crowded ferry traveling between two islands of Zanzibar sank off the East African coast. Officials described it then as the worst accident in Tanzania's maritime history.

Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.

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