Safaga, Egypt Rescue boats picked up at least 376 survivors from an Egyptian ferry that caught fire and sank in the Red Sea, apparently so fast there was no time for a distress signal. But more than 1,000 missing passengers and crew were feared drowned, officials said Saturday.
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.
Weather may also have been a factor. There were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia's west coast.
The ship sank in the dark hours of Friday morning while ferrying people and cars between the Saudi port of Dubah and Egypt's port of Safaga. Survivors said a fire broke out, got out of control and an explosion was heard.
Egyptian rescuers had pulled 340 people out of the sea by Saturday morning, Bakr el-Rashidi, the governor of Egypt's Red Sea province, told The Associated Press.
Saudis vessels searching in their waters have retrieved another 22 survivors — 20 Egyptians and two Saudis, a Saudi government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Hundreds of relatives desperate for news of their loved ones tried to push their way into Safaga, where survivors from “Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98” ferry were being brought ashore. Port officials were not distributing lists of survivor names to the crowd, which repeatedly tried to break through a line of helmeted police with sticks.
“No one is telling us anything,” said Shaaban el-Qott, from the southern city of Qena, who waited all night for news of his cousin. “All I want to know if he's dead or alive.”
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.
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.
“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.
“We heard an explosion and five minutes later the ship sank,” he added.
Mr. Wahab claimed that as passengers began to panic, “crew members locked up some women in their cabins.”
A martial arts trainer, Mr. 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 onto a rescue boat.
Ahmed Elew, an Egyptian in his 20s, said he went to the ship's crew to report the fire and they ordered him to help put it out. At one point there was an explosion, he said.
When the ship began sinking, Mr. 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, but eventually got into another lifeboat.
“Around me people were dying and sinking,” he said. “Who is responsible for this? Somebody did not do their job right.”
Mr. Mubarak flew to the port of Hurghada to visit survivors in two hospitals, Egypt's semi-official Middle East News Agency reported.
Some 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, said Mr. al-Rashidi.
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. In the end, the Orion — which has the capability to search under water from the air — was sent, but the HMS Bulwark was not, said Lt. Cdr. Charlie Brown of the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.
Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry likely went down nearly 60 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada.
The ship left Dubah at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on the 190-kilometre 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. They often travel by ship 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.
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.
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.