Hundreds feared drowned in Red Sea disaster

 

Hundreds of people are feared drowned in the Red Sea after an ageing Egyptian ferry carrying 1,400 passengers and crew sank yesterday in rough weather in one of the worst shipping disasters in 20 years, writes Rory McCarthy

Rescuers found at least 314 survivors in lifeboats and brought them ashore throughout the day aboard navy ships. Some, wrapped in blankets, were well enough to walk unaided, others were carried off on stretchers.

The ship went down at about midnight, halfway through a regular night-time crossing from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. Nearly all the passengers were Egyptians, many returning from the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca or from jobs in Saudi Arabia. Dozens of dead bodies were pulled from the water yesterday.

Egypt's transport minister, Mohammad Lufty Mansour, said the ship complied with all necessary safety measures. "The reasons for the accident remain unknown. The coast guard is doing everything in its power to try to rescue these people."

The al-Salam Boccaccio 98 was 36 years old but appeared to have been regularly maintained. It was a roll-on roll-off ferry, a class of ship which has a reputation for stability problems. It sailed under a Panamanian flag.

Originally the ship sailed from Jeddah, where the hajj pilgrims boarded, and then on to Duba. On Thursday at 6.30pm it set out from Duba to cross the Red Sea and should have docked at Safaga, southern Egypt, at 2.30am yesterday. Before midnight however, the ship ran into trouble. The captain sent out a distress signal, which was picked up by at least one other ferry but none of the coast guard services reported hearing any call.

Suddenly the ferry dropped off the radar and sank about 96km (60 miles) off Hurghada, a popular resort on the Egyptian coast just south of the Sinai peninsula. Waters in the area are up to 1,000m (3,300ft) deep. The fact that there were no more distress calls suggests the ship sank quickly. It was not clear what caused it to go down, although the weather was poor at the time and there were heavy seas. High winds and sandstorms were reported on the western coast of Saudi Arabia when the ship set sail.

"It could take some hours to work out what happened," said Andrea Odone, an official from El Salam Maritime, the ship's operator.

There was no suggestion of a collision or a terrorist attack, but the roll-on roll-off style of ferry is known to be particularly vulnerable in heavy seas. If a relatively small amount of water washes on board it can rapidly destabilise the ship.

"What we are all speculating is that the rough weather must have been the main factor in bringing this vessel down," Nizam Siddiqui, who works at the Jeddah office of maritime insurer Lloyd's of London, told the BBC.

Some hours later, after the ship failed to dock, a major search operation was launched by the Egyptian and Saudi authorities. Four Egyptian frigates and a destroyer were sent to the scene. Later a search- and-rescue aircraft and helicopters spotted five lifeboats carrying survivors who were eventually brought ashore at Safaga, 600km (375 miles) south of Cairo.

"We have spotted several lifeboats with live passengers that we are trying to get to," said Ayman al- Kaffas, a spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in London. "It's a challenging operation due to the bad weather conditions." He said rescuers had already found "dozens of bodies of victims". Last night hundreds of relatives were gathering in Safaga, where the ship had been scheduled to dock. Some complained about a lack of information as they waited.

A British royal navy ship, HMS Bulwark, a newly commissioned amphibious assault ship which was already in the Red Sea, was briefly diverted to help and then later recalled after its offer of assistance was turned down.

El Salam Maritime operates a fleet of 15 ferries and is the largest private shipping company in the Middle East. First reports suggested the ferry, though heavily loaded, was not overcrowded beyond its capacity, which stood at 1,487, according to the company's website.