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Ferry Sinks in Red Sea, Hundreds Feared Drowned

December 15, 1991

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ A ferry carrying 579 people sank in the Red Sea after ramming a reef in rough weather, police said Sunday, and as many as 429 people were reported missing and feared drowned.

Egypt’s deputy director of port security, Brig Abdel-Karim el-Gazzar, said 150 people had been rescued by nightfall, but a U.S. Navy spokesman in Bahrain quoted Egyptian contacts as saying that 210 had been pulled from the sea off the port of Safaga.

There was no explanation for the discrepancies.

El-Gazzar said all but 10 of the passengers were Egyptians, and that of them were returning from religious pilgrimages to Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia. He said the foreign passengers were two Malaysians, one Sudanese, one Zairean and six Filipinos. A Sudanese also was among the 71-member crew, el- Gazzar said.

Hassan al-Aghouri, Egypt’s director of port security, identified the ferry as the Egyptian-registered Salem Express owned by the Egyptian Samatour Shipping Company, dased in Alexandria.

He said the 1,105-ton ferry sank six miles off the port of Safaga, 293 miles southeast of Cairo.

The ship was sailing from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, to Safaga when it was swept up by 10-foot waves whipped by 35-knot winds. The vessel hit coral reefs near the Egyptian harbor and went down immediately, said al-Aghouri.

He said the accident occured at midnight on Saturday and rescue teams were unable to reach the area until dawn Sunday because of heavy storms and high seas.

Relief crews set up tents in Safaga as makeshift reception centers for survivors, most of whom were brought in by military helicopter. El-Gazzar said 118 of the survivors were hospitalized.

The U.S. and Australian navies sent helicopters to help Egyptian sailors in the search-and-rescue operation. The U.S. Navy regional command aboard the flagship USS La Salle sent two of the aircraft, said spokesman Lt. Rob Raine in Bahrain.

Three U.S. warships, two from France and one from Australia are on patrol in the Red Sea, enforcing the trade embargo imposed on Iraq by the United Nations after Baghdad invaded Kuwait last year.

Raine said U.S. warships did not pick up a distress signal from the Salem Express, which indicated that the crew did not use the correct emergency channel, or that the ferry was out of the ships’ radio range.

El-Gazzar, the port security official, said 292 of the ferry’s 508 passengers were Egyptians returning home from performing umrah, a pilgrimage for Muslims visiting the holy city of Mecca outside the regular pilgrimage season 40 days after the holy month of Ramadan.

The other Egyptian passengers were workers in Saudi Arabia, coming home either for a holiday because their contracts had ended, or because they were being deported by the Saudis, he said.

The trip between Jiddah and Safaga takes about 36 hours.

Egypt’s prime minister, Atef Sedki, and interior minister, Abdel-Halim Moussa, headed to Safaga to investigate the disaster.

The sinking was the second major boat accident on Egypt’s Red Sea coast this year. In April, 24 people died when an overloaded motor launch sank at Hurghada north of Safaga.

Update hourly