February 3, 2006

Hundreds missing after Egyptian ferry sinks

By Tom Perry

SAFAGA, Egypt (Reuters) - Three hundred people were rescued
after a ferry carrying 1,300 passengers sank overnight in the
Red Sea, but hope was fading on Friday of finding other

Rescuers have pulled at least 185 bodies from the sea
between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, said a senior police official
in the Egyptian port of Safaga, the center for the operation.

"There aren't expected to be many survivors, because it's
been so long since the ship went down," a source close to the
operations said.

As darkness fell, search boats were still bringing the dead
and survivors back toward Safaga, where the 35-year-old ferry
Al Salam 98, carrying mainly Egyptians, should have arrived at
2 a.m. (midnight GMT) on Friday, security sources said.

Red Sea governor Bakr el-Rashidi said 300 people had been
rescued and a shipping company executive said the survivors
were on their way to Safaga or had arrived.

Some relatives of the passengers complained about a lack of
information; others said that riot police guarding the entrance
of the port at Safaga were trying to make them disperse.

"They keep telling us to go away, as if we're not humans,"
said 19-year-old Ali Aboul Azaim.

"They are not telling us anything," Gadir Mohammed shouted.
"Where are the corpses? Where are they taking the survivors?"

Egyptian television ran video showing a black rubber
dinghy, filmed during a flight over the scene of the disaster.
But it was impossible to see if anyone was aboard.

The 11,800 gross ton ferry last had contact with shore at
about 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Thursday on its way to Safaga from
Duba in northwest Saudi Arabia, one official said.

An official at el-Salam Maritime Transport Company, which
owned the Panamanian-registered ferry, said it was unclear what
had happened to the ship, which was built in Italy in 1970 and
moved to the Egyptian company in 1998.

But none of the officials said there was any indication
that the sinking was the result of an attack on the ferry.

Egyptian president spokesman Suleiman Awad told Egyptian
television: "The speed with which the ship sank and the lack of
sufficient lifeboats indicate there was some deficiency."

But a shipping company official said the Saudi authorities
had confirmed that everything was in order when the ship
sailed. He declined to give his name because he is not a


The ship, which was carrying 42 vehicles, was of a type
that can sink quickly if water enters through one of the doors
through which vehicles drive aboard, experts said. That
happened with the ferries Herald of Free Enterprise off Belgium
in 1987 and Estonia in the Baltic in 1994.

"If these doors are open for any reason, then you've had
it. ... All you need is bashing by the sea and suddenly you get
an ingress of water," said Richard Clayton, news editor at the
shipping weekly Fairplay.

Most of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi
Arabia, officials said, but at this time of year many Egyptians
are still on their way home from the annual pilgrimage to

MENA said there were 1,272 passengers: 1,158 Egyptians, 99
Saudis, six Syrians, four Palestinians, a Canadian, a Yemeni,
an Omani, a Sudanese and one person from the United Arab
Emirates. The ship had a crew of close to 100.

The London-based Lloyds Marine Intelligence Service, citing
the Egyptian Defense Ministry, said the ship was believed to
have sunk about half way across the Red Sea, which is some 120
miles wide at that point.

MENA said the Saint Catherine, another ferry traveling the
same route overnight in the opposite direction, received a
distress message in which the Al Salam captain said his ship
was in danger of sinking.

But coastal stations received no SOS signal from the crew,
said a shipping company official. The weather had been very
poor overnight on the Saudi side, with heavy winds and rain, he

The small number of survivors recovered so far and the lack
of a distress signal received by coast guards suggested that
the crew had little time to take emergency measures.

"That makes me think it went down very quickly and it would
have been absolute panic on board ... (That) suggests that
something catastrophic failed," Clayton said.

(Additional reporting by Amil Khan and Jonathan Wright in