Egyptian officials turned down offers of help from the Royal Navy after a Red Sea ferry caught fire and sank with the loss of more than 1,000 lives, it was revealed today.
It also emerged that the crew decided to make a run for the Egyptian coast 112 miles away after fire broke out in the parking bay, despite only being 18 miles from the Saudi shore.
When the fire started on board the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98, panic spread quickly and some survivors claimed the crew locked cabin doors from the outside to keep people off the deck.
As the blaze later raged out of control, passengers who weren’t locked in rushed to one side of the 35-year-old vessel. High winds compounded the imbalance and the ship sank quickly with more than 1,400 passengers and crew and 220 cars after struggling to within about 57 miles of an Egyptian port.
The rescue effort was slow to start – initial offers of help were rejected - and two days after the ship set sail from Dubah on the Saudi coast for the crossing to Safaga, Egypt, on the opposite side of sea, just 376 survivors had been found.
“Fire erupted in the parking bay where the cars were,” said passenger Ahmed Abdel Wahab, 30, an Egyptian who works in Saudi Arabia. “We told the crew: ‘Let’s turn back, let’s call for help,’ but they refused and said everything was under control.”
As passengers began to panic, he said, “crew members locked up some women in their cabins.” He did not explain if the women were confined as a matter of modesty or because they were causing a disturbance. Some survivors said a number of women were screaming when the first was first reported.
“After a while, the ship started to list and they couldn’t control the fire. Then we heard an explosion and five minutes later the ship sank”, Wahab said.
Bakr el-Rashidi, governor of Egypt’s Red Sea province, said that as the crew was fighting the fire, “the ship tipped over, the wind was very strong, and people moved to one side, so all of that caused the ship to sink. It happened so quickly.”
Mahfouz Taha, head of Egyptian Red Sea Ports authority in Safaga, who reported that 376 people were saved, confirmed the fire had started in the parking bay of the refitted vessel.
Four Egyptian rescue ships only reached the scene on Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry was believed to have gone down about 57 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada.
Rescue efforts appeared to have been confused. Egyptian officials initially turned down a British offer to divert a warship to the scene and a US offer to send a P3-Orion maritime naval patrol aircraft to the area. The British craft, HMS Bulwark, headed from the southern Red Sea where it was operating, then turned around when the offer was rejected.
But then Egypt reversed itself and asked for both the Orion and the Bulwark to be sent – then finally decided to call off the Bulwark, deciding it was too far away to help, said Lt. Cdr. Charlie Brown of the US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. In the end, the Orion – which has the capability to search underwater from the air – was sent, but the Bulwark was not, he said.
At Safaga port, relatives and friends of passengers begged authorities for information. When there was none, some banged on the iron gates trying to storm the docks. Riot police with truncheons pushed the frantic crowd away from the port compound. Some police could be seen hurling stones back toward the angry and desperate people who initially threw them.
Shaaban el-Qott, 55, from Qena, was looking for his cousin who works in Kuwait. He had been waiting at the port since Friday morning and spent the night on the street.
“No one is telling us anything. All I want to know if he’s dead or alive. We rely on God. May God destroy Hosni Mubarak,” el-Qott shouted to a reporter. “This government was supposed to throw this ship away and get a new one.”
The tragedy struck a deep core of discontent among Egyptians who are suffering from a considerable economic downturn and increased unemployment.
“It’s the government’s responsibility. Had the government made any job opportunities available at home, these people wouldn’t have been forced to go abroad in the first place,” said 24-year-old Moustafa Zayed whose father was on the ship. He worked as a contractor in Saudi Arabia. “Had he stayed here (in Egypt) we wouldn’t have had money to buy food.”
Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries – many of them from impoverished families in southern Egypt who spend years abroad to earn money. They often travel by ship to and from Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, which is less expensive than flying. The Saudi port of Dubah is a major transit point for them.
Some on board the ferry were believed to be Muslim pilgrims who had overstayed their visas after last month’s hajj pilgrimage to work in the kingdom.
President Mubarak flew to the port of Hurghada, about 40 miles farther north, and visited survivors in two hospitals. He was accompanied by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and four other ministers. Television pictures of the visit, which normally would have carried sound of Mubarak’s conversations with the survivors, were silent.
A group of nearly 140 survivors came ashore at Hurghada shortly before dawn. Wrapped in blankets, they walked down a rescue ship’s ramp, some of them barefoot and shivering, and boarded buses for a local hospital. Several were on stretchers.
Survivor Wahab, a martial arts instructor, said he spent 20 hours in the sea, sometimes holding on to a barrel from the ship and later taking a lifejacket from a dead body.
Ahmed Elew, an Egyptian in his 20s, said he went to the ship’s crew to report the fire and they ordered him to help put it out. At one point there was an explosion, he said.
When the ship began sinking, Elew said he jumped into the water and swam for several hours. He said he saw one overloaded lifeboat capsize, but managed to stay afloat long enough to find another.
“Around me people were dying and sinking,” he said. “Who is responsible for this? Somebody did not do their job right. These people must be held accountable.”
Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awad said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats and an investigation was under way into the ship’s seaworthiness. But later, Maj. Gen. Sherin Hasan, chairman of the maritime section of the Transportation Ministry, said there were more than enough lifeboats for the number of passengers on the ferry.
Hasan said the captain of the vessel, whom he did not name, was missing.
“The swift sinking of the ferry and the lack of sufficient lifeboats suggests there was some violation, but we cannot say until the investigation is complete,” Awad, was quoted as saying by the official MENA news agency.
The ship left Dubah at 7:30pm on Thursday on the 120-mile trip to Safaga, where it was scheduled to arrive at 3am It disappeared from radar screens between midnight and 2am and no distress signal was received.
The ferry was carrying 1,200 Egyptian and 112 other passengers as well as 96 crew members, the head of Al-Salaam Maritime Transport Company Mamdouh Ismail told The Associated Press. The passengers included 99 Saudis, three Syrians, two Sudanese, and a Canadian, officials said. It was not clear where the other passengers were from.
The agent for the ship in Saudi Arabia, Farid al-Douadi, said the vessel had the capacity for 2,500 passengers. But the owner’s Web site said the ship could carry 1,487 passengers and crew.
A ship owned by the same company collided with a cargo ship at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal in October, causing a stampede among passengers trying to escape the sinking ship. Two people were killed and 40 injured.