Angry survivors blame crew for Egypt ferry tragedy

Surviving passengers of an ageing Egyptian ferry that sank in the Red Sea, leaving hundreds feared dead, blamed the crew Saturday for failing to turn around when a fire broke out and monopolising the life rafts.

“Two hours after our departure from [the Saudi port of] Duba thick smoke started to come out of the engines,” 34-year-old Egyptian Raafat al-Sayyed told Agence France-Presse.

He said the 1 300 passengers on board the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 were told to gather on the decks so that crew members could extinguish the blaze as the ship started to list dangerously.

“But the fire continued for a long time, and they [the crew] kept on saying that they were getting it under control,” said Kamel Mohammad Abdel Askari (48) another Egyptian.

The survivors, being treated in hospitals at Hurghada on the Red Sea, said the Panamanian-flagged ferry continued on its voyage, listing to the port side, before suddenly going down in no more than 10 minutes.

Speaking to Nile News television, Transport Minister Mohammed Mansur confirmed that the sinking of the vessel may have been caused by a fire that broke out after one of the engines broke down.

Survivors being rushed to hospital failed to understand why the crew refused to turn around when the Saudi coast was still relatively close and described the dying minutes of the floating inferno.

“The first person to get into a lifeboat was the captain,” said Sayyed.

The captain was however numbered among the missing. Some of those rescued said they had seen him fall from his lifeboat.

Sayyed, who survived thanks to a lifevest, lost touch with four travelling companions. “There were not enough lifeboats for everybody.”

Another survivor, 26-year-old Egyptian Kadhafi Abdel Monem, agreed about the lack of lifeboats.
“I clung to an empty barrel,” he said from his hospital bed.

“The fire, the smoke, the people climbing up to the bridge, the shipwreck. A real nightmare,” he murmured as a medical team bustled around him.

Survivors said the fire broke out at around 7.30pm GMT on Thursday and that the 36-year-old ship finally sank four hours later. It now rests 2 500 feet deep at the bottom of the Red Sea.

“I spent nearly four hours in the water with my lifejacket before being pulled into a lifeboat,” said Abdel Rahim Ahmad (49) adding that many women and children were on board the ill-fated ferry.

With the fate of around 1 000 still unknown 30 hours after the tragedy, relatives gathered in an area on the edge of Safaga port usually dedicated to Egyptian pilgrims returning from Mecca started venting their anger.

“I went to Hurghada and back four times since yesterday but I still have no news,” said one Egyptian.

An Agence France-Presse reporter on the ground said that at least 300 of them muscled their way through several cordons of riot police to rush towards the docks in search of their relatives, prompting a wild chase in the port area.

Government employees could be seen hastily applying a fresh layer of paint on the town’s pavements, as President Hosni Mubarak was expected in the area to visit the survivors.

“They are too busy preparing the president’s visit and they don’t have time to care about our sons,” said one angry Egyptian.

Around 10 employees from the Egyptian branch of mobile phone operator Vodafone, wearing red hats and scarves, were offering the families free calls back home.

“They are using this tragedy for publicity,” shouted one man in the crowd. “They are even worse than the president.” - AFP

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