Survivors Say Egyptian Ferry Was on Fire Before Sinking

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A file photo of the ferry "Salaam Boccaccio 98" in Suez, Nov. 25, 1999. (Yvon Perchoc -- AP File Photo)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 5, 2006

HURGHADA, Egypt, Feb. 4 -- The smell of oily smoke reached the passenger deck of the Alsalam Boccaccio 98, and engineering student Isra Ibrahim Abdul-Rahman asked the crew what was amiss.

Crew members said it was just a little fire down below.

We're taking care of it, they said.

Later, there was more smoke, more questions, more reassurances.

Finally, around 1 a.m. Friday, black smoke billowed from the ferry's vehicle deck and the Boccaccio 98 began to list to the right. Desperately, the crew and captain ordered passengers to gather on the left.

In a matter of minutes, the ship sank in the Red Sea. Passengers and crew -- about 1,400 people, in all, officials said -- threw themselves overboard and scrambled to find rubber dinghies drifting in the roiling waters. None of the 10 larger lifeboats, each of which could hold 100 people, was lowered into the water.

"The crew and captain never said abandon ship. They kept reassuring us until the end. By then, it was every passenger for himself," said Abdul-Rahman, who was convalescing here Saturday from a harrowing night at sea.

Abdul-Rahman was one of about 400 survivors. About 200 bodies have been retrieved from the sea. Another 800 people are missing and probably dead, Egyptian authorities said. At least 20 of the passengers were children.

It was a preventable disaster, survivors said Saturday. Passengers and crew members interviewed at Hurghada General Hospital, which overlooks the sea, said that the fire and efforts to put it out eventually caused the sinking but that there had been plenty of time to turn back before the ship went down.

Flames broke out less than two hours after the ferry, a 35-year-old vessel owned by El Salam Maritime Transport Co., had set out from the Saudi port of Duba. The captain insisted on heading west toward his destination on Egypt's shore, Safaga. For several hours, the ship continued to sail as fires flared repeatedly. Within 60 miles of the Egyptian coast, it sank.

"If we had only gone back to Saudi Arabia," said Abdul Rahman, 17, with a sigh as she huddled under a hospital blanket. She was returning to Egypt from a visit to her father, who works, like thousands of Egyptians, in oil-wealthy Saudi Arabia.

"The captain's word is law," said Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed, a maintenance crew member who was told to help put out the flames. The captain, identified by Ahmed and others as Sayyed Omar, was seen jumping overboard as the Boccaccio 98 listed.

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