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At Least 185 Killed in Egypt Ferry Mishap

February 3, 2006

SAFAGA, Egypt (AP) _ An Egyptian passenger ferry carrying nearly 1,500 people, mostly Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia, sank in the Red Sea early Friday. Coast Guard vessels pulled some 185 bodies from the sea, and at least 263 survivors escaped on lifeboats, officials said.

Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the 35-year-old ferry likely went down. As darkness descended Friday at the site, some 57 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada, there were fears the death toll could be extremely high.

The ferry did not have enough lifeboats, a spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak said.

``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, quoted by the semiofficial news agency MENA.

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. The waters in the area are up to 3,000 feet deep.

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 _ then finally decided to call off the Bulwark, deciding it was too far away to help, said Lt. Cdr. Charlie Brown of the U.S. 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.

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-Salaam Boccaccio 98,″ which was also carrying about 220 vehicles, left Thursday at 7:30 p.m. from the Saudi port of Dubah on a 120-mile trip to the Egyptian port of Safaga, south of Hurghada. It had been scheduled to arrive at Safaga at 3 a.m.

The vessel went down between midnight and 2 a.m., when authorities lost contact with it. No distress signal was received.

About 1,400 passengers, along with a crew of 98, were on board, said Awad.

The passengers included about 1,200 Egyptians, as well as 99 Saudis, three Syrians, two Sudanese, and a Canadian, officials said. It was not clear where the other passengers were from. Some of them were probably Muslim pilgrims who had overstayed their visas after last month’s hajj pilgrimage to work in the kingdom.

The agent for the ship in Saudi Arabia, Farid al-Douadi, said the vessel had the capacity for 2,500 passengers.

The cause of the sinking 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.″

``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.

Transport Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told CNN that 263 survivors had been found so far.

A police official at the operations control room in Safaga, where Mansour was directing rescue efforts, said 185 bodies were pulled from the sea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

But there was confusion among the casualty reports, with Mansour reporting only four bodies found.

Hundreds of relatives of the passengers complained bitterly about lack of information as they waited in Safaga. Police ringed the dock area to prevent families and reporters from entering.

``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.″

``Where are the lists of names,″ one man shouted, then finding none at the port entrance ran to look elsewhere.

Well after nightfall, there were contradictory reports whether any survivors had been brought back to shore. A security official said 20 had been sent to a Safaga hospital, but police at the port’s entrance told families none had been brought back. Police ringed the Safaga hospital.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries _ many of them from impoverished families in southern Egypt who spend years abroad to earn money. They often travel by ship to and from Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, a cheaper option than flying. The Saudi port of Dubah is a major transit point for them.

Mamdouh al-Orabi, the manager of Al-Salaam Maritime Transport Company, which owns the ferry, said the company became concerned about the Al-Salaam 98 early Friday and informed another of its ships that was heading from Safaga to Dubah.

The ship reported back that it sighted people on a lifeboat, and the company alerted Egyptian authorities, al-Orabi told Associated Press Television News.

The Al-Salaam 98, registered in Panama, was built in 1971 and renovated in 1991, al-Orabi said. It had a maximum capacity of 2,500 passengers, the ship’s Saudi agent, Farid al-Douadi, said.

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

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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