Most of 1,400 passengers feared dead in Red Sea shipwreck

Rescuers of Egyptian and Saudi emergency services have picked 352 people who survived yesterday’s tragedy in the Red Sea, when a ferryboat caught fire and sank. More than a thousand passengers of the ship and the crewmembers have most likely drowned, governmental officials of Egypt and Saudi Arabia said.

The governor of Egypt's Red Sea province, Bakr el-Rashidi, told The Associated Press that 340 people had been rescued from the sea by Saturday morning. Earlier police had put the survivor toll at 435, but this was later retracted as a case of double-counting by staff in the rescue operation room in Safaga.

Saudis vessels have retrieved another 22 survivors - 20 Egyptians and two Saudis, a government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.

"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 an explosion was heard. The vessel apparently sank suddenly as no distress signal was received.

"Fire erupted in the parking bay where the cars were," said passenger Ahmed Abdel Wahab, 30, an Egyptian who works in Saudi Arabia. "We told the crew: 'Let's turn back, let's call for help,' but they refused and said everything was under control.

Wahab told The Associated Press that as passengers began to panic, "crew members locked up some women in their cabins."

"After a while, the ship started to list and they couldn't control the fire. Then we heard an explosion and five minutes later the ship sank," said Wahab.

A martial arts trainer, Wahab said he spent 20 hours in the sea, sometimes holding on to a barrel from the ship and later taking a life-jacket from a dead body, before he was hauled on to a rescue boat.

Governor Bakr el-Rashidi said that as the crew was fighting the fire, "the ship tipped over, the wind was very strong, and people moved to one side, so all of that caused the ship to sink. It happened so quickly."

Transport Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour said 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 60 kilometers (40 miles) further north, on Saturday and visited survivors in two hospitals, Egypt's semi-official Middle East News Agency reported. He was accompanied by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and four other ministers.

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 DavidOsler 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."

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 Saturday morning. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Safaga Port Authority said 389 survivors had been picked up, Egypt's semi-official Middle East News Agency reported Saturday. The discrepancy in survivor tolls could not be immediately reconciled.

Some of the survivors were taken from the ferry's lifeboats, others from inflatable rescue craft dropped into the sea by helicopters, and others were pulled from the water wearing life jackets, the governor of Red Sea province, Bakr al-Rashidi, told The Associated Press.

Rescue efforts appeared to have been confused. Egyptian officials initially turned down a British offer to divert a warship to the scene and a U.S. 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 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.

Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the 35-year-old ferry likely went down some 95-kilometers (57 miles) off the Egyptian port of Hurghada.

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.

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, quoted by MENA.

The ship left Dubah at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on the 120-mile trip to Safaga, where it was scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m. It disappeared from radar screens between midnight and 2 a.m. and no distress signal was received.

The ferry was carrying 1,200 Egyptian and 112 other passengers as well as 96 crew members, the head of Al-Salaam Maritime Transport Company Mamdouh Ismail told The Associated Press. The passengers included 99 Saudis, three Syrians, two Sudanese, and a Canadian, officials said. It was not clear where the other passengers were from.

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.

But some on board the ferry were believed to be 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. But the owner's Web site said the ship could carry 1,487 passengers and crew, the AP says.

A ship owned by the same company 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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