Ferry disaster: Focus on lifeboats and safety

Rescue boats and helicopters have converged in the choppy waters of the Red Sea, searching for survivors of an ageing ferry that sank with more than 1,400 people on board, mainly Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia. Most were feared lost but officials said at least 324 made it to safety.

Transportation Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told reporters early today that a “small fire” broke out on the ferry before it sank, and said investigators were still working to determine its connection to the sinking. He said there was no explosion on the vessel.

At the Egyptian Red Sea port of Hurghada, nearly 140 survivors were brought to shore early today.

They walked off the ship down a ramp, some of them barefoot and shivering, wrapped in blankets, and immediately boarded buses to take them to the hospital.

Some shouted to waiting journalists, angry that their rescue had taken so long.

“They left us in the water for 24 hours. A helicopter came above us and circled, we would signal and they ignored us,” one man shouted. “Our lives are the cheapest in the world,” another said. Lines of police kept journalists away from the survivors to prevent them asking questions.

A spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats, and questions were raised about the safety of the 35-year-old, refitted ship that was weighed down with 220 cars as well as the passengers.

“It’s a roll-on, roll-off ferry, and there is big question mark over the stability of this kind of ship,” said David Osler of the London shipping paper Lloyds List. ”It would only take a bit of water to get on board this ship and it would be all over. … The percentage of this type of ferry involved in this type of disaster is huge.”

Weather may also have been a factor. There were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia’s west coast.

Officials said more than 185 bodies were recovered while hundreds remained missing in the dark, chilly sea nearly 24 hours after the ship went down. One lifeboat was sighted from a helicopter during the day bobbing in the waves with what appeared to be about a dozen or more passengers.

Hundreds of angry relatives of the passengers crowded for hours outside Egypt’s port of Safaga, south of Hurghada, where the ferry had been heading. They shouted at police barring the iron gates and complained they had no information on their loved ones.

“This is a dirty government, may God burn their hearts as they burned mine,” one woman wailed, slapping her face in grief. “I want my brother. I have no one else in this life.”

Mansour said 324 people were rescued so far. A ministry spokesman said a three-year-old child, was among those saved.

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