Saturday, April 1, 2006; Posted: 5:13 p.m. EST (22:13 GMT)
Bahraini rescue personnel search for bodies Saturday at the scene off the coast of Manama.
MANAMA, Bahrain -- Passengers expressed worries over the precarious balance of a traditional dhow-turned-pleasure boat, which swayed dangerously even before it set off on its cruise, ending with the vessel flipping over during a sharp turn, drowning 57 people, a British survivor said Saturday.
The dhow, an ancient form of sailboat used in the Gulf, had a permit
only for use as a floating restaurant, not to go on passenger cruises, an Interior Ministry spokesman said. Also, the boat's captain
, who has been detained for questioning, was not licensed to pilot the craft, he said.
"According to Coast Guard records and the Tourism Board, the boat was registered as a floating boat, but not as a cruiser permitted to sail," ministery spokesman Col. Tariq al-Hassan told The Associated Press.
The owner had applied for a sailing permit
but it had not yet been granted, he said.
The dead from Thursday night's accident included 21 Indians and 15 Britons, including a number of top executives involved in the construction of Bahrain's World Trade Center, a nearly completed complex of two 50-story skyscrapers in the shape of sails
that are to be the tiny Gulf island nation's tallest buildings.
Sixty-nine people were rescued at the time of the accident -- though two of them, an Indian man and a British woman, were not confirmed safe until Saturday because they had been picked up by private boats.
Al-Hassan said one person still may be missing and authorities were still searching, saying there may have been a few more than the 126 people believed on the boat when it overturned.
The construction firm Murray & Roberts Group had rented the dhow, the Al-Dana, for a party celebrating the towers' construction. But during the cruise, the craft tipped during a turn, sending people dancing on the upper deck sliding into the water
. It then flipped entirely, trapping passengers dining on the lower deck.
Simon Hill, a manager with the firm who survived the capsising, said the boat had swayed even before it left shore, "causing several people to feel uneasy. By 7.40pm, 16 people had disembarked," he said.
He said a representative from the tour operator through which the boat was chartered urged people to move below deck to distribute weight more evenly, then spoke to the boat's captain
"We asked the captain if he was happy to leave, and if he wasn't he should say so, and we would not leave. At 8 o' clock we sailed," Hill told a press conference in Manama.
Hill said the Gulf waters were calm during the cruise, with little wind
. After eating and listening to a speech by the World Trade Center project director, he and his wife and others were on the top deck, sitting in chairs. About a kilometer (half mile) from shore, the boat then made a U-turn to return.
"One minute we were stood talking, and having a good time, enjoying a very nice evening, it was a pleasant evening. And then in seconds, it went very quickly," he said.
"I looked and I saw people sliding down the boat to one side, through the gap, and before I knew it I was in the water, under the water, and there were people everywhere in the water," he said. "I came to the surface, called for my wife and found her."
Within seconds, he said, the boat flipped over completely. Those who were on the top deck were able to swim away. But about half the passengers were trapped below deck, some of them trying to smash the glass windows underwater, Hill said.
"We didn't see anyone that was underneath come out," he said.
Another passing pleasure boat picked up some passengers from the water, and within 10 minutes a Coast Guard boat arrived, followed by a U.S. Marines boat and another Bahraini Coast Guard vessel. "We begged for divers to come as soon as possible," Hill said.
British families of the victims began arriving in Bahrain on Saturday, as authorities began the task of returning the bodies of the dead.
A nine-member team of British foreign service
officers and Red Cross staffers arrived in Bahrain Friday to work
with the embassy "to provide all the comfort and support the families need over the coming days and weeks,".
British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells -- who rushed to Bahrain from a visit in the nearby United Aran Emirates -- said the impact of the disaster on the British community in the tiny Gulf island nation "has been enormous."
"It's a relatively small ex-pat community and to lose this number of people in a single
accident has been a great trauma," Howells told reporters Saturday after meeting Bahrain's king and interior minister.
"The Bahrainis in fact have a very comprehensive licensing system for leisure boats. The system seems to be rigorous here," he said.
The capsizing struck a heavy blow to the top management of the South Africa-based construction firm Murray & Roberts Group and its partners working on the construction of Bahrain's World Trade Center -- meant to be an iconic structure in this Gulf nation that has been booming with profits from oil
The dead included 10 employees of Murray & Roberts -- among them the project's chairman, David Evans, 56, and project director Will Nolan, 50 -- as well as six employees of the engineering firm Atkins, which was handling design of the World Trade Center.
The companies involved in the project were to meet to determine the impact on construction and whether there would be a delay in the complex, said Samir Nass, vice chairman and managin director of Nass Corporation, a top partner in the construction.
"There are so many firms that are subcontractors who were also on the boat," Nass told AP by telephone. "It's too hard to tell at this stage what will be the extent of the delay, if any."
Construction of the twin towers' skeleton has been completed, a monumental, swooping sail-shaped frame of concrete on steel
overlooking the coastline of Bahrain's capital, Manama. They are still to be clad in a sheet of glass. A shopping
mall at the base of the towers is scheduled for opening in August, with the towers themselves -- dedicated to offices -- due for opening later in 2006.