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Crews Search for Survivors in Red Sea

February 3, 2006

SAFAGA, Egypt (AP) _ An Egyptian ferry carrying about 1,300 people sank in the Red Sea early Friday during bad weather, and rescue ships and helicopters pulled dozens of survivors and bodies from the water. Some 180 escaped on lifeboats, an official said.

Most of the passengers were Egyptian workers returning from their jobs in Saudi Arabia. At least four Saudi and four Egyptian ships were involved in the search effort, arriving about 10 hours after the 35-year-old ferry was believed to have sank.

As darkness descended Friday at the site, some 40 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada, there were fears the death toll could be extremely high. Any survivors still in the Red Sea could go into shock as temperatures fell in the already cold waters, which average in the upper 60s in February.

Egyptian regulations require life jackets on the boat, but implementation of safety procedures are often lax. It was not known if the ship had enough life jackets and whether the passengers put them on when the ship sank.

Rescue efforts appeared confused. Egyptian officials initially turned down a British offer to divert a warship to the scene to help out and a U.S. offer to send a P3-Orion maritime naval patrol aircraft to the area. The British craft, HMS Bulwark, headed toward 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, said Cdr. Jeff Breslau, a spokesman for the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. The Bulwark is part of a Dutch-controlled multinational task force, which includes assets from the 5th Fleet and British navy.

Saudi ships were patrolling waters off their shore to hunt for survivors, but found none, a senior Saudi security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The ship, ``Al-Salam Boccaccio 98,″ went down between midnight and 2 a.m. as most of the passengers were sleeping. The waters in the region are as much as 1,000 yards deep.

The cause was not immediately known, but there were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia’s west coast.

``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.″

Osler said there was no indication of terrorism, adding that ``bad weather is looking likely.″

Steve Todd, national secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union in Britain, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that ``you can never legislate for weather in any part of the world, unfortunately. One minute in the Red Sea can be quite flat, calm, and the next minute it can be really atrocious weather conditions.″

An official at the maritime authority control room in Suez said at least 20 bodies and 30 survivors were pulled from the water. He said about 150 more survivors were still known to be on lifeboats. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

A spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in London, Ayman al-Kaffas, told The Associated Press that ``dozens of bodies″ had been pulled out of the water.

Egyptian Transport Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told CNN that 78 survivors and four bodies were found.

Hundreds of relatives of the passengers complained bitterly about lack of information as they waited in the Egyptian port of Safaga, where the ship had been scheduled to dock at 3 a.m. Friday.

``There is nobody ... to tell us what is going on,″ said Ahmed Abdul Hamid, a teacher from the southern Egyptian city of Assuit who was waiting for his cousin. ``We are in a complete blackout.″

``How can they put all these passengers in such an old ship that was not fit for sailing?″ he asked, adding ``somebody should be blamed.″

The ship left at 7 p.m. local time Thursday from the Saudi port of Dubah, a common transit point for tens of thousands of Egyptian expatriates working in Saudi Arabia _ many of them impoverished _ to return home.

The boat was destined for Safaga, a port 120 miles across the Red Sea. After arriving in Safaga, workers would continue on to their homes, mostly in southern Egypt.

The agent for the ship in Saudi Arabia, Farid al-Douadi, said about 220 vehicles were on board and that the vessel had the capacity for 2,500 passengers. It was carrying 1,318 people, including a crew of 96, the head of the Egyptian Maritime Authority, Mahfouz Taha Marzouk, told The Associated Press.

``The ship complied with all necessary safety measures,″ Egyptian Transport Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told Egypt’s semiofficial Middle East News Agency. ``The reasons (for sinking) remain unknown.″

The Salaam 98′s passengers included about 1,200 Egyptians, as well as 99 Saudis, three Syrians, two Sudanese, and a Canadian, the control room official said. Among the passengers were likely Muslim pilgrims who had overstayed their visas after last month’s hajj pilgrimage to work in the kingdom.

It was not immediately possible to explain why the numbers of passengers provided by the control room exceeded the figure provided by Marzouk.

No distress signal was received from the ferry, but at some point during the night it disappeared from radar screens, the control room official said.

``I would imagine there was on board a fire or some sort of disaster that quickly happened and engulfed the ship and there wasn’t time to send an SOS,″ Miles Cowsill, Editor of European Ferry Scene, told the BBC.

Marzouk said the ship was built in 1971 and renovated in 1990 in an Egyptian shipyard.

``Certainly in British waters, that type of ferry of that age would not be seen these days,″ Todd said. ``It’s very, very rare to be seen in most parts of the world.″

Osler of Lloyds List said that last June the ship passed a structural survey test conducted by the International Safety Management Code.

While the ship’s owners and the maritime authority referred to the ship as ``Salaam 98,″ Osler said its registered name was Al-Salam Boccaccio 98.

Dubah and Safaga lie virtually opposite each other at the northern end of the Red Sea, which is an extremely busy sea route, with east-west traffic between Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well north-south traffic through the Suez Canal and to and from the Israeli and Jordanian ports of Eilat and Aqaba.

The ship is owned by the Egyptian firm El-Salaam Maritime Transport Co. The company’s owner, Mamdouh Ismail, said the ship is registered in Panama. He spoke before the sinking was confirmed and refused to comment further.

A ship owned by the same company, also carrying pilgrims, 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.

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