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Egypt ferry survivors tell of fire

Rescue teams are scouring the Red Sea for survivors after an Egyptian ferry sank, leaving more than 1,000 people dead or missing in one of the worst maritime tragedies in years, as the rescued spoke of a fire on board the ill-equipped vessel.

"Why didn't the crew get it under control?" asked one former passenger hospitalised at this Red Sea port, after survivors said the blaze had raged for at least three hours before the ship went down.

The owners of the ship said between 300 and 400 of the more than 1,400 people on board had been rescued while police put the temporary death toll at 185.

More than 24 hours after the Panamanian-flagged Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 encountered difficulties, the chances of finding more survivors were dwindling amid low night-time water temperatures and bad weather conditions.

Controversy has already emerged over the 36-year-old vessel's compliance with safety regulations and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak demanded an immediate investigation.

"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 the crew told passengers to go up onto the bridge 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 suddenly going down in less than 10 minutes.

The passengers, mainly Egyptians working in Gulf countries or returning from the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, were heading toward Safaga, 600 kilometres south-east of Cairo, when contact was lost shortly after the last reported distress signal at around midnight GMT on Thursday.

Gathered in an area on the edge of Safaga port dubbed "the pilgrims' village" and initially designed for passengers returning from Mecca, families listened to officials reading out the names of the passengers.

The Al-Salam Maritime Transport company that owns the ship said that 1,318 passengers were on board - including 1,200 Egyptians and 100 Saudis - and 97 crew members.

Mr Sayyed, the hospitalised survivor, told AFP: "Everything happened very quickly. In less than 10 minutes the ship went upside down and we were in the water."

The captain was however numbered among the missing. Some of those rescued said they had seen him fall from his lifeboat.

'Not enough lifeboats'

Mr Sayyed, who survived thanks to a lifevest, lost touch with four travelling companions.

"There were not enough lifeboats for everybody."

Another survivor, 26-year-old Egyptian Kadhafi Abdel Monem, agreed about the lack of lifeboats. "I clung to an empty barrel," he said from his hospital bed.

"The fire, the smoke, the people climbing up to the bridge, the shipwreck. A real nightmare," he murmured as a medical team bustled around him.

Andrea Odone, an official working for the Egyptian owners of the ferry, said the number of passengers on board was less than the permitted maximum of 1,487.

The ship was "in total conformity with international safety regulations."

One of the ship's sister vessels sank in the Red Sea last October after a collision with a Cypriot tanker.

The Italian firm that certified the ship's seaworthiness 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.

"I spent nearly four hours in the water with my lifejacket before being pulled into a lifeboat," said Abdel Rahim Ahmad, 49, adding that there had been many women and children on board the ill-fated ferry.

The first survivors, mostly men, arrived at the hospital here 24 hours after the drama.

Barefooted, with blankets over their shoulders, they were greeted by doctors and given little bags of food - juice, potato chips, chocolate.

Out of some 1,400 passengers only 140 arrived alive on Saturday at the two hospitals in Hurghada, while a body was sent to the morgue, according to hospital assistant director Imadeddin Hindi.

A spokesman for the Italian firm RINA which was in charge of inspecting the vessel told AFP that his company was ready to cooperate with investigators and stressed that the ship was checked twice last year.

Close to 500 people perished when another Salam Express ferry sank in the Red Sea in 1991.

According to France-based shipping expert Yvan Perchoc, the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 was one of several old Italian ferries to which extra decks had been added in order to boost passenger capacity, sometimes threefold.

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