A ferry carrying up to 150 people capsized and sank last night off the coast of Bahrain and at least 48 bodies have so far been recovered, officials said.
By early this morning, regional television stations put the death toll at 54.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, speaking on Bahrain television, said at least 44 bodies have been recovered and 52 people rescued, but Bahrain’s Coast Guard chief, Youssef al-Katem, later revised the figures up in a news conference. He said 48 bodies have been recovered and that there were 63 survivors.
The official Bahrain News Agency said the ferry was on an evening cruise that was to last several hours. It overturned less than a mile off the coast, it added.
US helicopters and divers joined the rescue and recovery operation launched by Bahrain’s Coast Guard. Bahrain, a tiny island nation on the western side of the Persian Gulf, is the home of the US 5th Fleet.
Rescue teams brought to shore bodies covered with white sheets. Hospital workers took them away to waiting ambulances. Scores of officials and relatives waited on the dock watching small rescue boats bring more bodies and survivors.
There was no indication of what caused the ferry to sink in what appeared to be perfect weather conditions in the area.
Al-Katem said an investigation was underway. However, terrorism was ruled out by a senior interior ministry official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
“I rule it out 100%,” said the official.
The passengers were thought to be a mix of Bahrainis, nationals of other Gulf Arab nations and Westerners. Health Minister Nada Haffadh told al-Arabiya television that survivors who arrived at hospitals included nationals of India, South Africa, Singapore and Britain.
Haffadh told Bahrain television that a total of 24 people were hospitalised and that other survivors were released on arriving on shore. Television footage showed survivors, appearing in shock and their hair still wet, squatting on the floor of a hospital. Many of them covered themselves with blankets.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman visited survivors in hospital.
Information Minister Mohammed Abul-Ghafar, interviewed on al-Arabiya television, said the passengers included 25 Britons, 20 Filipinos, 10 South Africans and 10 Egyptians.
Sheikh Al Kahlifa, the Interior Minister said most of the ferry’s passengers were employees of a Bahrain-based company.
“So far, the (rescue) operations continue. God willing, there will be more survivors rescued,” he said in a telephone interview aired on Bahraini television.
Al-Katem, the coast guard chief, said there were 150 guests at a dinner party aboard the ferry. The guests, he said, ate their dinner while the ferry was still docked and that up to 20 of them disembarked before it sailed.
He said the first word on the accident came from a survivor who alerted authorities from his mobile telephone saying that the ferry suddenly listed.
The Bahrain agency said the island nation’s coast guard boats arrived at the site of the sunken vessel and quoted Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Mohammed Ben Dayna as saying more than 60 people have been rescued and taken to hospital.
“It’s too early to say what caused the accident,” he said.
A US Navy spokesman in Bahrain said American helicopters and divers were headed to the site. “We’re sending divers, small boats and a helicopter right now,” Cmdr. Jeff Breslau said.
A pair of helicopters could be seen from the shore flying low over the site of the sunken ferry. Rescue teams on small boats could also be seen using flash lights to help them search for survivors in the night.