Captain of Red Sea ferry 'was first to leave' stricken ship

Survivors angry at behaviour of crew as fire in cargo hold is blamed for tragedy that claimed 800 lives
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The Independent Online

Disturbing questions about both the behaviour of the captain of the Red Sea ferry that sank with the loss of about 800 passengers, and the state of the vessel, were raised yesterday.

As indications emerged that the cause of the disaster was a fire that broke out on a lorry in the cargo hold, survivors being brought ashore yesterday told of the crew's insistence that all was well. There was also strong criticism of the captain, who reportedly had been among the first to man a lifeboat and leave the ship.

Meanwhile, as a team of specialist engineers appointed by the Egyptian government began its official investigation, it emerged that the Al-Salaam '98, built in 1971, would not have been permitted to sail if it had been registered under Egyptian laws, which prohibit any vessel more than 25 years old. Instead the vessel was registered under the more lenient laws of Panama.

According to the first eyewitness accounts, smoke was first seen coming from around the engine room of the stricken Al-Salaam '98, which was carrying more than 1,400 passengers and crew from the Saudi port of Duba across to Egypt. Most of those on board were poor Egyptian workers returning home to see families after long periods of work in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Rescue workers have recovered 195 bodies from the Red Sea and saved 400 people, but about 800 more are missing.

The officer who was second in charge of the vessel, and who survived the disaster, said that a fire had started and spread to the engine room soon after the ferry departed on its eight-hour journey. The captain, he said, had ordered that the vessel return to Duba. However, after being assured that the fire was under control, the captain reversed his order and turned the vessel back to its original course to Egypt.

However, the fire, far from being under control, intensified - possibly because of high winds. One survivor brought to shore yesterday said the ship sailed on for two hours, listing badly as passengers crowded on to one side of the ship to avoid the billowing smoke. "There were many, many women and children gathering round the crew and lifeboats but the crew wouldn't get the lifeboats out," he said, depicting a scene of growing panic as the smoke-filled ship sailed on in the early hours of Friday morning.

The crew allegedly refused repeatedly to concede that there was a serious problem. Another survivor said that the captain had dispatched crew equipped with walkie-talkies to patrol the decks and that passengers were pressuring them to take action. "We asked the captain to send a distress signal but he wouldn't," said another. "We got no reply." By the time the crew lowered lifeboats it was too late to save all on board.

Egyptian survivor Shahata Ali said: "We were told there was nothing wrong, and they took away the lifejackets. Then the boat started to sink and the captain took a boat and left." Another survivor, Khaled Hassan, said: "The captain was the first to leave and we were surprised to see the boat sinking."

Egyptian officials turned down a British offer to divert a warship, HMS Bulwark, to the scene.

The accounts of the survivors fuelled growing anger yesterday as the families gathered at the port of Safaga vented their frustration with the ship's owners and Egyptian authorities. Early in the day the anger boiled over when hundreds who were waiting for news of their loved ones burst through police lines to demand information from an emergency centre established by the ship's owner, the El Salam Maritime Company.

There was a small sign of hope yesterday as the number of survivors grew from about 200 overnight to 400 by midway through the day, with Egyptian search and rescue workers finding survivors in lifeboats and in inflatable jackets in the shark- and barracuda-infested waters of the Red Sea. The survivors included 22 who had been swept by strong currents more than 50 miles towards the Saudi coast. One survivor shouted out: "They left us in the water for 24 hours. We would signal [to the helicopters] and they ignored us."

Mamdouh Ismail, head of the El Salam Maritime Company, told reporters that the ferryhad no technical problems before the trip. A company official said that the captain, named as Sayyed Omar, was still unaccounted for.