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Old 07-02-2006, 23:36   #1
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Post Egypt: Not Told For Hours That Ferry Sank

The presidential spokesman said Tuesday that the owners of the Red Sea ferry that sank, drowning about 1,000 people, did not inform the government that the ship had sunk for nearly six hours after it went down.

Suleiman Awad emerged from a Cabinet session chaired by President Hosni Mubarak to say the government first heard that the ship was in danger at 7 a.m. and that it was feared to have sunk at 7:45 a.m Friday.

By most accounts the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 sank no later than 2 a.m., five hours before the government was notified of any trouble, six hours before Cairo learned it likely had sunk.

Other reports say the ship sank at 1 a.m., which would have made the delay in notification at least seven hours.

"What really happened," Awad said, "was that the port authority was first informed at 7 a.m. by the ship's owners that they had lost contact with the ferry. Forty-five minutes later, the company told port officials the ship may have sunk," Awad said.

"One minute later the rescue center was notified and by 8 a.m. a plane was over the spot where the ship went down. ... It was followed by another rescue plane and ships of the Egyptian fleet," he said.

'It was so bad, you couldn't imagine'
Meanwhile, the captain of another ship owned by Al Salam Maritime, the St. Catherine, told a Cairo newspaper Tuesday that he was told by the owners as he left Safaga port in Egypt to try to make contact with the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 because they feared it was in trouble.

The St. Catherine captain, Salah Jomaa, said he left port at 2:45 a.m. That meant that the company was aware the ship was in danger by that time.

After repeatedly failing to make radio contact, Jomaa said he placed a satellite telephone call to the captain of the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 but received no answer. Jomaa said he finally made contact at 6:57 a.m. with another officer of the ship who was in a lifeboat and told him the ship had gone down.

Jomaa said he reported the sinking to the Al Salam Maritime office in Safaga at 7:05 a.m.

The manager of the company gave a similar account to The Associated Press last week, but did not provide any times, which are crucial.

"Our agent in Safaga informed us that the ship was late, so we started making inquiries. At the same time, one of the ships we operate (the St. Catherine) was heading for Dubah (Saudi Arabia). We informed its crew, which later reported that there were people on a rescue boat in the sea, so we notified the relevant authorities," said Mamdouh Orabi, Manager of El Salam Maritime.

Jomaa said he did not turn back and sail the 25 miles to reach the scene of the sinking because he feared he would endanger his 1,800 passengers.

"I feared the St. Catherine would capsize if I turned sideways into the wind to make a turn to go back," Jomaa said.

"The weather was terrible, the waves were very high, it was so bad, you couldn't imagine. The wind speed was 45 knots (52 miles an hour). There could have been two disasters instead of one," Jomaa said.

Jomaa said he told Mamdouh Ismail of Al Salam Maritime that it was too dangerous to make the rescue attempt. Jomaa said Ismail agreed and told him to keep on course to Dubah.

'I couldn't help them'
AP first learned from maritime officials that the ship was in trouble shortly before 11 a.m. The tragedy was not reported by Egyptian media for several hours after that.

The fact that Egyptian authorities did not launch a rescue operation until 8 a.m., which would have been at least six, perhaps as long as seven, hours after the ship sank lends support to survivor accounts of spending at least 10 to 12 hours in the sea clinging to life preservers or in life rafts before they were rescued. Some gave accounts of being at sea for as long as 20 hours after the sinking.

The delay in notifying the government compounds other accounts of possible mistakes surrounding a tragedy that could have been avoided.

The Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 left Dubah, Saudi Arabia at 6:30 p.m. Cairo time on Thursday in fierce winds that were whipping a sandstorm on the Saudi coast. The ship set sail with more than 1,400 passengers and crew, as well as 220 vehicles.

About two hours into the journey the crew discovered a fire in the vehicle parking bay.

According to survivors the ship's captain was told by the crew that the fire was contained and he continued the run for the Egyptian coast.

At that time he would have been about 30 miles from his departure point and had roughly 90 miles to go to reach Egypt.

The strong winds that night apparently fanned the embers of the blaze, which then grew out of control. As the ship struggled in the high winds and waves, it began to list.

That danger was compounded by water sloshing in the hold from the firefighting effort. The ship eventually rolled over and sank 62 miles from the Egyptian coast, according to Awad.

Long before it sank the passengers learned of the fire and stormed to the deck seeking help from the crew. Although there apparently were plenty of life jackets readily available, some survivors said they were discouraged by the crew from putting them on "so as not to cause the women and children to panic."

Other survivors said the crew did nothing to help lower life boats and gave passengers no instructions.

"The captain had four hours to ask for help or to return to Saudi Arabia, but he did not. His pride made him believe that he could control the situation," said Sayed Abdul Hakim, a survivor who worked as a painter in Kuwait. "He was acting as if we were not human beings."

"None of the crew members lowered lifeboats or even told us how to use them," said Abdul Hakim, who battled the waves for three hours before climbing into an inflatable lifeboat. Around him, women and children were calling out. "I couldn't help them," he said, shame mingled in his words.

Mubarak: Those responsible won't escape punishment
Many of the passengers on the fated ship were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, forced to find employment abroad because of a lack of jobs at home. That the tragedy struck so many who were forced to find jobs far from home struck a deep core of anger at the government among many Egyptians

In an unusually biting column in the government-owned Al-Ahram daily Tuesday, columnist Salama Ahmed Salama accused the authorities of "impotence, failure and inefficiency in facing catastrophes."

The tragedy "proves its (the government's) hardheartedness and indifference in dealing with the human feelings of thousands of citizens who lost their loved ones, as a result of negligence and corruption, the government apparatus and officials, who don't feel their responsibility, should be questioned about."

Awad said Mubarak told the Cabinet the catastrophe had shaken him and all Egyptians and that the investigation of the tragedy would uncover its true cause.

"Those who are responsible will not escape without punishment," Awad quoted Mubarak as saying. "There is no one in Egypt who is above law or questioning, and as an Egyptian, I am angry and sad for what happened."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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