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Egypt ferry survivors tell of fire

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Close to 1,000 people are feared dead as chances dwindle of finding many more survivors from an aging Egyptian ferry that caught fire and then sank in the middle of the Red Sea.

Controversy mounted over the safety of the 36-year-old ship, and survivors blamed the captain for refusing to turn around when a fire broke out shortly after the vessel left Saudi Arabia with 1,300 passengers on Thursday night.

Hundreds of relatives gathered in Safaga on hearing news of the ship's sinking, potentially one of the deadliest maritime disasters of recent years. Anger mounted as little information on the fate of loved ones filtered through.

Maritime sources said 378 people from the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 had been pulled out of the sea alive.

Among them were 29 passengers who were saved by Saudi coast guards and taken back to safety in Duba, the ship's port of departure.

A police official said late on Friday that 185 bodies had been recovered and that the death toll was expected to soar.

Strong winds and currents hampered the initial phase of the search and rescue operation and chances of spotting more survivors in the cold and shark-infested sea were receding by the minute.

"Two hours after our departure from (the Saudi port of) Duba thick smoke started to come out of the engines," 34-year-old Egyptian Raafat al-Sayyed told AFP.

He said passengers were told to gather on the decks so that crew members could extinguish the blaze as the ship started to list dangerously.

"But the fire continued for a long time, and they (the crew) kept on saying that they were getting it under control," said Kamel Mohammad Abdel Askari, 48, another Egyptian.

The survivors, being treated in the hospital at Hurghada on the Red Sea, said the Panamanian-flagged ferry continued on its voyage, listing to the port side, before going down in less than 10 minutes.

The transport ministry's head of maritime affairs, Shereen Hassan, explained that fire broke out twice on the ship.

There were conflicting reports about where the blaze started, with different witnesses saying it broke out in one of the engines or in the exhaust system and officials talking of a truck catching fire in the car deck.

In a briefing to President Hosni Mubarak, who was in Hurghada to visit survivors, Mr Hassan gave the chronology of events, which revealed that search and rescue operations were only launched seven hours after the ship sank.

The owners of the ship, the Al-Salam Maritime Transport Company, defended the record of the ship and its crew, saying they met all international standards.

It added in a statement that it was insured by a leading company in the United Kingdom.

Around 1,200 of the passengers were Egyptians from poor rural areas who had sought better paid jobs in Gulf countries or performed the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Italian classification society that inspected the ship, Registro Italiano Navale (RINA), said its seaworthiness had been checked twice last year.

RINA is facing prosecution in France for allegedly failing to carry out proper checks on the Maltese-flagged tanker Erika which broke up off the coast of France six years ago.

The head of Duba port said the ship had passed all tests successfully a day earlier, despite survivor claims of a shortage of life-saving equipment.

But pressure continued to mount on the authorities to provide more information on the missing

Egypt ferry survivors tell of fire
Egypt ferry sinking blamed on truck fire

Wreck of sunken ferry found in Red Sea

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