February 7, 2006

Egypt captain says could not help after ship sank

CAIRO (Reuters) - The captain of a ship who heard calls for
help after an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea last week said
he did not respond because he feared his own passenger ship
could sink if he turned back in bad weather.

The Al Salam 98 ferry sank on Friday leaving more than
1,000 people dead or missing. Officials have been investigating
reports that the Saint Catherine, a ferry owned by the same
company, failed to respond to calls for assistance.

"I took the decision not to return to protect 1,800
passengers who were with me on the Saint Catherine for fear of
capsizing the ferry while turning," Captain Salah Gomaa told
the state-owned daily al-Ahram in remarks published on Tuesday.

He said bad weather, including high waves and fast winds,
prompted him not to respond to the call for assistance from Al
Salam 98's second officer, who informed him from a life boat
that the ship had sunk.

"It is possible there could have been two disasters and the
Saint Catherine would also have been capsized," he said, adding
that he sent out a call for help to other ships in the area.

The 35-year-old Al Salam 98 was carrying 1,414 people, but
only 388 people were rescued. Families of the victims
criticized the government for not responding more quickly to
the sinking ship and blamed the ferry company for operating an
old vessel.

The government had said 244 bodies were recovered by Monday
evening. Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady said a further 85 to 87
bodies were found on Tuesday, indicating the total number of
corpses found was now at least 329 with almost 700 missing.

Both the Saint Catherine and the Al Salam 98 are owned by
the Egyptian company El Salam Maritime Transport Co.

On Tuesday, the Saudi authorities refused to allow
passengers to board another Egyptian ferry, Al Salam 94, as the
vessel was deemed unsafe. An Egyptian port official said the Al
Salam 94 was owned by the same shipping firm.

Company officials could not be reached for comment.

"The ferry arrived in (the Saudi port of) Duba around
midnight on Monday. We made our checks and found it was in a
bad state. It was old," a port official in Jeddah told Reuters,
adding that the ship returned to the port of Suez in Egypt.

The official said Saudi safety measures had been tightened
after the disaster.

About 150 relatives of disaster victims protested on
Tuesday in the Egyptian port town of Safaga, where the Al Salam
98 had been due to arrive from Saudi Arabia. The protesters
were demanding information about their loved ones.

On Monday, relatives of the victims ransacked and torched
the Safaga offices of the El Salam Maritime Transport. Police
used tear gas to drive away the crowds.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond in Saudi Arabia)