Bahrain cruise disaster leaves 15 Britons dead

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Bahraini authorities are investigating claims that the pleasure boat which sank off the Persian Gulf state, killing 57 people including at least 15 Britons, was dangerously overcrowded.

As rescue operations began to be scaled down, investigators were establishing exactly how the dhow capsized half a mile off the coast of Bahrain on Thursday night. Thirteen of the 150 passengers remained unaccounted for, although several Britons were among more than 60 people were rescued, some of whom were still being treated in hospital last night.

Overcrowding is the most likely cause of the boat turning over at the end of a dinner cruise for employees of a construction company. There has been no suggestion of terrorism.

The boat, a modern version of the ancient dhows common to the Gulf region, was believed to have a normal capacity of about 120. Some reports said the captain, who survived, had been reluctant to take it out because of overcrowding, and some worried passengers had left the ship before the cruise started.

A British embassy team was dispatched to the area and Robin Lamb, the ambassador, was returning from London, where he had been attending a conference. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We can confirm that 15 British people, three of whom had dual nationality, have lost their lives. But there a still a number of people, some of whom may be British, who are still missing so the final figure could rise."

Identification procedures were hampered because there was no passenger list and few people were carrying identity papers although it is believed a total of 25 Britons were on board.

Most of the passengers were employees of a construction company, Murray & Roberts, based in South Africa, and a subcontractor, who were celebrating the completion of a four-year contract on the Bahrain World Trade Centre towers. The boat was returning to the port of Al Muharraq, in the north-east of the island state after a two-hour trip from the Marina Club in Manama, Bahrain's capital.

Survivors said there had been no warning. "Things were going all right, people were dancing, people were having fun, but the boat was very crowded," Khalil Mirza, a Bahraini survivor said. "People were scared in the water. They were fighting each other and screaming."

He raised the alarm on his mobile phone as the boat began to overturn. Some of those on board managed to swim ashore or to other pleasure boats near by. Raymond Austin, from Kent, was among several British employees of a concrete company, who disembarked before the boat set sail because of they thought it unsafe. His daughter, Rebecca Austin, 18, said he was "shaken up and distraught". Many of the dead had been people Mr Austin had worked alongside for several years.

On board, one man warned the passengers not to gather on the dhow's upper deck before it set out. "He got the microphone and told them to go down because the boat was rocking from side to side," an unidentified witness said. "There were life jackets on board, but the boat toppled very fast; there wasn't enough time."

An Indian barman who had been on board was reported as saying the boat had "rocked badly and tilted over" after hitting a wave. "The refrigerator and cooker all slid to one side of the boat and with that extra weight, the boat couldn't sustain it any longer and we rolled," he said.

Local television showed graphic images of rescue workers taking bodies wrapped in white sheets off a rescue boat, and survivors, still wet and in shock, were seen squatting on the floor of a hospital.

One man was shown being treated for head cuts and others had blood streaming down their faces. Several wept uncontrollably as friends and relatives tried to calm them.

Murray & Roberts said 15 of its staff were safe but named eight of 10 who had died, four of whom were British. They were David Evans, 56, the project chairman, Will Nolan, 50, the project director, Stephen Grady, 42, a finishes manager and Chris Braysher, 47, a commercial manager, who also had dual British/South African citizenship.

Brian Bruce, the company's chief executive, said: "We are deeply shocked by this tragedy. Our condolences go out to all those who have been affected."