February 3, 2006

Praying for the Victims

Ferry Disaster Claims More than 1,000 Lives

EGYPTIAN authorities admitted last night that a ferry that sank in the Red Sea with more than 1,400 people on board was unsafe and did not have enough lifeboats. Nearly 1,100 were feared dead.

The Al Salam Boccaccio 98, a 35-year old vessel driven out of European waters by stringent safety regulations, went down suddenly early yesterday morning local time, 57 miles from its destination at the Egyptian port of Safaga. Coast Guard ships pulled about 185 bodies from the sea, and at least 324 survivors escaped on lifeboats.

“The speed at which the ship sank and the fact that there were not enough liferafts on board confirm that there was a [safety] problem but we cannot anticipate the results of the investigation,” Suleiman Awad, President Mubarak’s spokesman, said.

Survivors said that a fire had broken out aboard the vessel about 90 minutes after she left Saudi Arabia. “It was like the Titanic on fire,” one told reporters.

About 140 survivors were brought to the resort of Hurghada. They walked off the ship down a ramp, some of them barefoot and shivering, wrapped in blankets.

Some shouted to waiting journalists, angry that their rescue had taken so long. “They left us in the water for 24 hours. A helicopter came above us and circled, we would signal and they ignored us,” one man shouted. “Our lives are the cheapest in the world,” another said.

Winds were high and seas heavy, but it should have been a routine trip across the busy, well-policed waterway — a 120-mile journey of four to five hours. Instead, nearly halfway through the journey, something calamitous happened.

The vessel simply vanished from the radar, unable even to send out an SOS. It was UK Mission Control Centre at RAF Kinloss that raised the alarm at 23.58GMT when a young corporal in the darkened search-and-rescue base near Inverness saw an electronic blip on his screen, followed by a ringing sound.

The Egyptian military sent four rescue vessels but, according to some reports, ten hours elapsed before they reached the scene. The stricken ship’s owners diverted three of its passenger vessels, a conventional ferry and two high-speed craft, to the area.

(Full Story)


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