Iraqi divers retrieve bodies after boat accident

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 01, 2013 17:15 hrs

Divers worked through the night and into Friday in murky waters to recover bodies from a partially sunken floating restaurant in Baghdad after an accident killed nine people attending a party for the local Caterpillar distributor.

The body of one man dressed in a black jacket was pulled to the surface around midday, drawing plaintive cries of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," from waiting family members on the banks of the Tigris River.

Plates of half-eaten food remained on restaurant tables onshore, a testament to the previous evening's panic.

Authorities said the tragedy was an accident and that there were no signs a militant attack was to blame. Instead, investigators believe the boat may have been overloaded on Thursday evening, ahead of the start of the Muslim weekend, and became unstable as guests massed in one area for a group photo.

Ameer Ahmed was on board the boat when it started to go down and managed to swim to safety. He said the whole accident happened in a matter of minutes, and that there was a stampede as crowds tried to escape through the narrow door.

"The windows on the right side smashed inwards, flooding us with water," he said. "The scene reminded me of the movie 'Titanic.' I was lucky because I know how to swim."

Those on board the boat were attending an employee appreciation event for the local distributor of the bulldozer and heavy machinery manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., said a manager for the dealer who attended the event.

Police and hospital officials said nine people died in the accident. Like the manager for the Caterpillar distributor, the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

No Caterpillar employees were involved in the accident, spokeswoman Rachel Potts said. The company is working with the dealer to monitor the situation and offer assistance as needed, she added.

The one-story boat — a sort of enclosed floating platform — was moored to the shore of the Tigris River as part of the popular Lebanese Club restaurant complex.

It is situated in a corner of central Baghdad where members of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime once kept grand riverfront homes. Many officials in the current government now live in the area.

The restaurant complex is one of several new businesses that have sprung up as Iraq's economy has begun to improve in the years since the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago. With a red carpeted staircase, uniformed waiters and pricey water pipes, it was popular with some of Baghdad's wealthier residents.

Baghdad Fire Chief Laith Yas Abbas happened to be dining at the onshore part of the club when the accident occurred. He returned to the site Friday to help oversee the recovery effort.

He told The Associated Press that about 120 people were trying to take a group photo on one side of the boat when it began to take on water. That sparked a panic as guests rushed toward the exit.

Amateur video uploaded to YouTube showed water pouring into the floating restaurant as well-dressed guests scrambled for the exit.

"I can swim. Save her!" one man in the video calls out.

A rescue diver taking a break at the scene Friday afternoon said he and his colleagues had been working throughout the night.

The muddy river water left divers with zero visibility, forcing them to search only by hand as they avoided chairs and other debris inside the submerged restaurant, he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was under orders not to talk to the media.

It was unclear whether the boat was up to safety standards. Regulatory oversight remains weak and corruption is deeply entrenched in Iraq.


Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.


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