Up to 1,100 feared dead as Egyptian ferry sinks in minutes

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More than 1,000 people are feared dead after an Egyptian-owned passenger and cargo ferry sank in rough seas off the eastern coast of Egypt yesterday, in one of the region's worst maritime disasters.

The ship, the Al-Salaam '98 left the Saudi port of Duba at 7pm on Thursday and disappeared from radar 40 miles short of its destination, the eastern Egyptian port of Safaga near the resort of Hurghada.

It emerged last night that the ferry was the sister ship to the Herald of Free Enterprise which capsized and sank near Zeebrugge, Belgium, in 1987, killing nearly 200 passengers. Egyptian authorities said the vessel was carrying 1,406 passengers and crew, after earlier estimates put the number at just over 1,300.

Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, has ordered an immediate and "quick" investigation into the cause. Mr Mubarak also ordered search and rescue operations to continue through the night as news of the potential catastrophic loss of life swept the Egyptian capital of Cairo. Bad weather was hampering attempts to locate and rescue survivors.

By late yesterday, rescue workers had found about 314 survivors in lifeboats. At least 185 bodies were found, raising the prospect that some 1,100 people might have drowned.

The Egyptian health ministry said that eight hospitals in Hurghada were being prepared to treat survivors and provisions were also being made to take survivors to hospitals in Cairo.

In the small port town of Safaga, which lies 120 miles directly across the Red Sea from the Saudi port of Duba, distressed relatives waited for news of survivors.

The majority of those on board were poor Egyptian workers returning home to their families in the south of Egypt after periods of work in Saudi Arabia. Families of workers visiting loved ones in Saudi were also among those on board. It was likely that they were asleep at the time.

Egypt's transport authorities also said that a Canadian national was on board the vessel as well as 99 Saudis. The vessel was also carrying 220 vehicles.

The cause of the accident is not clear, though there was speculation that poor weather and high winds on the Red Sea may have played a role, along with the type and condition of the vessel which was built in 1971 and used by an Italian firm before being sold to Egypt's Al-Salaam Maritime Company.

The Al-Salaam '98 was a roll-on, roll-off ferry that "would not be allowed to trade in Europe", David Osler, of the shipping paper, Lloyd's List, said. "There have been many improvements made since [1987]. These sort of vessels tend to get pensioned off."

Mr Osler said that the age of the vessel, 35 years, meant that it predated all applicable standards in Europe. He added, though, that it was still too early to know why the vessel sank.

In 1991, in an almost identical area of the Red Sea, another cruise liner sank after hitting a reef and 450 passengers died.

Authorities were alerted to yesterday's disaster when an emergency beacon fixed above the Al-Salaam's '98's bridge detached and sent a signal via satellite to an international maritime emergency room.

Egypt's Transport Minister, Mohammed Lutfy Mansour, said that the ship had been in compliance with "all the necessary safety measures."

Yesterday's accident is the second within the space of five months involving a ship owned by the Al-Salaam Maritime Company. Late last year the Al-Salaam '95, a sister ship to the vessel which sank yesterday, was involved in a collision on the Red Sea as it returned from Saudi Arabia.

On that occasion, two people died and dozens were injured. In that instance, many scrambled to safety on lifeboats and were able to board the other vessel involved in the collision.

A company spokesman said that the Al-Salaam '98 was certified until 2010 and that it had complied with maintenance regulations. He said that the ship was registered in Panama. While overcrowding is commonplace on vessels such as the Al-Salaam '95, Mr Mansour insisted that the Al-Salaam '98 was within its permitted limit of 1,400 passengers.

Britain joined rescue efforts by diverting the amphibious assault ship HMS Bulwark to the scene. It was expected to take a day and a half to arrive.

Egyptian authorities declined an American offer to divert a US P3-Orion aircraft to the area. But, as investigations commence, there are questions being raised about why it took rescue authorities almost 10 hours to respond.