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Survivors Tell of Fire, Chaos Aboard Ferry

February 05, 2006|Jano Charbel and Megan K. Stack | Special to The Times

SAFAGA, Egypt — With more than 1,000 people feared dead, survivors of Friday's Red Sea ferry sinking told bleak tales Saturday of chaos and hubris -- of lifeboats that went unused while passengers struggled to save themselves.

It was shortly after the aging ship pulled out into the Red Sea from the Saudi port of Duba that a fire broke out on board, survivors and authorities said Saturday, but the captain insisted on continuing toward Egypt.

The 35-year-old vessel listed and sank early Friday morning, plunging quickly into the deep water with more than 1,400 passengers and crew members aboard. By Saturday night, at least 376 people had been rescued, but there was little hope of finding more survivors. About 200 bodies have been recovered.

Most of the victims appeared to be Egyptian workers headed home from jobs in the Persian Gulf region.

The fire started on a lower deck, probably in one of the 220 vehicles being transported by the ferry, Egyptian officials and survivors said. Passengers and crew members said they began to smell smoke an hour after they began the 120-mile journey to Egypt, but the captain refused to turn back, insisting that everything was under control.

"We heard there was a fire in the garage," said Shaaban Ragab Shaaban, a 36-year-old man from Alexandria who had gone to Saudi Arabia to work as a driver. "We could see and smell the smoke."

Shortly before the ferry sank in stormy weather, Shaaban said, he and his friends climbed to the upper deck and donned life vests. The ferry was listing, he said, so the passengers were told to go to the higher side.

It wasn't until the boat had filled with seawater and was listing badly to the right that the captain gave the order to abandon ship, survivors said. But at that point, there was no time to prepare the 10 larger rescue boats, which could carry 100 people each.

A survivor told reporters that the ferry continued sailing for two hours after the fire had started, and sank within minutes, the BBC reported.

When the ferry began to go down, passengers told Reuters, some crew members climbed into lifeboats and left the travelers to fend for themselves. The captain has not been found, according to a statement issued by El Salam Maritime Transport Co., which owns the ferry, Al Salam Boccaccio 98. The ship was registered in Panama.

"It was like watching the movie 'Titanic,' " Sayed Abdul Hakim, a 32-year-old painter who worked in Kuwait, told Associated Press. "None of the crew brought down lifeboats or even told us how to use them. I swam for three hours. Then I spotted a rubber boat ... I stayed there for 18 hours. I felt I was a dead man."

Ten hours passed before survivors, who had been clinging to barrels and sitting in rafts, saw the first signs of rescue teams. Once the rescue effort began, Egyptian officials vacillated between turning down offers of assistance from the U.S. and British governments and calling for international help.

In this Egyptian port, where the ferry had been scheduled to arrive before dawn Friday, anxiety gave way to rage among families who were waiting for word of missing loved ones. People hurled rocks at riot police who were blocking the crowd from surging through the gates to the docks.

Kamal Abdel Shafi, a 53-year-old farmer from Qena, was hoping to learn the fate of his three cousins. The men, all in their 30s, had gone to Kuwait in search of steady jobs and were on their way home for a vacation.

"All we know is that they are out there somewhere in the sea -- alive or drowned," Shafi said. "I just wish we could have a clear answer from the authorities: Are they alive or dead?"

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak toured hospitals Saturday in Hurghada to speak with survivors. Mubarak called for an investigation, and pledged that his government would pay about $5,200 to the families of those who died, and about $2,600 to each survivor.

*

Special correspondent Charbel reported from Safaga and staff writer Stack from Beirut.

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