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
"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
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
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.