Over 1,000 still missing in Ferry disaster

 

Protesters desperate for news about the fates of passengers on a ferry that sank in the Red Sea demonstrated in Egypt today, as about 1,000 people remained missing and feared drowned in the disaster.

Police said 401 people had been rescued by midday Sunday, and 195 bodies had been recovered. The Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 was carrying more than 1,400 passengers and crew and 220 cars when it quickly sank early Friday about 55 miles from the Egyptian port of Hurghada.

Most of the passengers were Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia.

Survivors said that the ship's crew decided to push across the Red Sea despite the fire burning in the aging vessel's parking bay. Crew members were questioned today, but the captain is still missing, news reports said.

About 100 people demonstrated outside the port of Safaga - the ship's intended destination after leaving Saudi Arabia -  where violent protests took place yesterday.

Demonstrators, who have been waiting in the streets outside Safaga port for almost two days, yelled: "Where is the president, where are our sons? Where are the bodies? We want to know the fate of the children!"

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew to Hurghada, about 40 miles farther north, yesterday and visited survivors in two hospitals. But television pictures of the visit, which normally would have carried sound of Mubarak's conversations, were silent.

During the visit, Mubarak ordered that the families of each victim be paid $5,200 in compensation and the survivors $2,600 each. In a televised address, the president said, "We pray that God almighty may count (the victims) among his martyrs."

The tragedy struck a deep core of discontent among Egyptians, who are suffering from a considerable economic downturn and increased unemployment.

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 to Saudi Arabia by ship.

The Egyptian government's rescue effort got off to a slow start. Initial offers of help from the United States and Britain were rejected, and four Egyptian rescue ships did not reach the scene until Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry was believed to have capsized.

The series of tragic errors that led to the ship's sinking began when the crew decided to push across the Red Sea, despite a fire burning in the aging vessel's parking bay, survivors said Saturday.

The 35-year-old vessel had sailed only about 20 miles from the Saudi shore, but its crew instead tried to reach Egypt's shores 110 miles away.

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

Passengers began panicking, and crew members locked up some women in their cabins, Wahab and another survivor said, though many others being treated in Safaga hospitals Saturday said that was not true.

As the blaze went out of control, passengers not locked in their rooms moved to one side of the vessel. An explosion was heard, and high winds helped push the unbalanced ship over.

News reports Saturday said the ship's captain and some of his crew fled their drowning vessel in one of the first lifeboats to launch, but that could not be confirmed.

Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awad said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats and an investigation was under way into the ship's seaworthiness.

But later, Maj. Gen. Sherin Hasan, chairman of the maritime section of the Transportation Ministry, said there were more than enough lifeboats for the number of passengers on the ferry.

Hasan said the captain of the vessel, whom he did not name, remained missing.