Rescue boats have picked up 435 survivors from the Egyptian ferry that caught fire and sank in the Red Sea, police said today as their officers struggled to hold back hundreds of people trying to push their way into the port of Safaga to get information about their loved ones among the ship’s 1,400 passengers and crew.
“No one is telling us anything,” said Shaaban el-Qott, from the southern city of Qena, who was furious after waiting all night at the port gates for news of his cousin. ”All I want to know if he’s dead or alive.”
Referring to the president, el-Qott added: “May God destroy Hosni Mubarak.”
A hysterical woman banged on an iron gate to the port, where survivors from the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 ferry were being brought ashore.
The port officials were not distributing lists of survivor names to the crowd outside, who repeatedly tried to break through a line of helmeted police with sticks.
The ship sank in the dark hours of Friday morning while ferrying people and cars between the Saudi port of Dubah and Safaga, on the opposite side of the Red Sea. Survivors said a fire broke out, got out of control and there were explosions. The vessel apparently sank suddenly as no distress signal was received.
Transport Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told reporters that investigators were trying to determine whether the fire, which he described as “small”, led to the sinking. He denied there were explosions.
President Mubarak flew to the port of Hurghada, about 40 miles further north, today to oversee the rescue operation and visit survivors, state television reported.
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.
Many survivors said the fire began about 90 minutes after departure, but the ship kept going. Their accounts varied on the fire’s location, with some saying it was in a storeroom or the engine room.
“They decided to keep going. It’s negligence,” one survivor, Nabil Zikry, said before he was moved along by police, who tried to keep the survivors from talking to journalists.
“It was like the Titanic on fire,” another one shouted.
Ahmed Elew, an Egyptian in his 20s, said he went to the ship’s crew to report the fire and they told him to help with the water hoses to 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 lifeboat overturn because it was overloaded with people. He eventually got into another lifeboat. “Around me people were dying and sinking,” he said.
“Who is responsible for this?” he said. “Somebody did not do their job right. These people must be held accountable.”
Several survivors shouted to journalists their anger over slow rescue efforts. “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.
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.”
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.
A police officer in Safaga said 435 people had been rescued by today, but Safaga Port Authority said 389 survivors had been picked up.
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 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.
Mubarak’s spokesman said an investigation was under way.
“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,” said presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad.