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Old 04-02-2006, 13:32   #1
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Post Red Sea Ferry Survivors Say Captain Fled

SAFAGA, Egypt - Survivors of the Red Sea ferry disaster said on Saturday the Egyptian captain had fled his burning ship by lifeboat and abandoned them to their fate, as hopes faded of finding some 800 missing people.

Some passengers, plucked alive from the sea or from boats after the ferry caught fire and sank early on Friday, said crew members had told them not to worry about the blaze below deck and even ordered them to take off lifejackets.

An official at el-Salam Maritime Transport Company, which owned the Al Salam 98, said the captain, named as Sayyed Omar, was still unaccounted for. The company will issue a written statement on the disaster later on Saturday, he added.

Rescue workers have recovered 195 bodies from the Red Sea and saved 400 people, but about 800 more, most of them Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia, are missing.

The director of the Red Sea Ports Authority, Major-General Mahfouz Taha, said 378 survivors had come ashore on the Egyptian side. The Saudi authorities said they had picked up 22.

Survivors said a fire broke out below deck shortly after the 35-year-old vessel left the Saudi port of Duba on Thursday evening with 1,272 passengers and a crew of about 100.

The ship began to list but the crew continued to sail out into the Red Sea rather than turn back to the Saudi port, they told reporters in the Egyptian port of Safaga, where the ferry should have landed early on Friday.

Egyptian survivor Shahata Ali said the passengers had told the captain about the fire but he told them not to worry.

"We were wearing lifejackets but they told us there was nothing wrong, told us to take them off and they took away the lifejackets. Then the boat started to sink and the captain took a boat and left," he added, speaking to Reuters Television.

"The captain was the first to leave and we were surprised to see the boat sinking," added Khaled Hassan, another survivor.

Other survivors also reported that the crew had played down the gravity of the situation and withheld lifejackets.

"There was a fire but the crew stopped the people from putting on lifejackets so that it wouldn't cause a panic," said Abdel Raouf Abdel Nabi, one of the survivors.

"There was a blaze down below. The crew said 'Don't worry, we will put it out.' When things got really bad the crew just went off in the lifeboats and left us on board," said Nader Galal Abdel Shafi, another arrival on the same rescue boat.


Shirin Hassan, the head of the maritime section of the Egyptian Ministry of Transport, told state television the fire seemed to have broken out on a vehicle on the lower car deck.

The crew thought they had put it out but it flared up again, he said, citing a preliminary analysis.

It was not immediately clear why coastguards did not appear to have received any distress signal from the ferry.

State news agency MENA said on Friday morning a ship did pick up a message from the ferry's captain saying he was in danger of sinking. It did not say how the ship reacted.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ordered an immediate investigation into the disaster, visited some of the injured in a hospital in the port of Hurghada on Saturday.

Mubarak ordered the government to pay 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,200) in compensation to each of the families of the dead and 15,000 pounds to each of the survivors, MENA said.

In Safaga, riot police fired four tear gas canisters at angry relatives of the passengers after some in the crowd had thrown stones at the police holding them back at the gate to the port, witnesses said.

In the morning an official came and read out a partial list of the names of survivors to the assembled relatives.

Fathi Kamel cried out: "Allahu Akbar (God is Most Great)" when he heard that his nephew was among the survivors.

Others broke down in tears when the reading ended and they had not heard the names they were waiting for.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad said on Friday there may not have been enough lifeboats.

"The speed with which the ship sank and the lack of sufficient lifeboats indicate there was some deficiency," he told Egyptian television.

A shipping company official said the Saudi authorities had confirmed that everything was in order when the ship sailed.

MENA said the passenger list included more than 1,000 Egyptians, as well as other nationalities, including Saudis, Syrians, and a Canadian.

A sister ship of the sunken ferry, the Al Salam 95, sank in the Red Sea in October after a collision with a Cypriot commercial vessel. All but four of the passengers were saved.

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