- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 4, 2006

Passengers told

to shed life vests

as vessel burned

SAFAGA, Egypt — Survivors of the Red Sea ferry disaster said yesterday the Egyptian captain had fled his burning ship by lifeboat and abandoned them to their fate, as hopes faded of finding about 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 life jackets.

An official at Al-Salaam Maritime Transport Co., which owned the vessel, said the captain, Sayyed Omar, was still unaccounted for.

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

The director of the Red Sea Ports Authority, Maj. Gen. 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 Dubah 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 life jackets, but they told us there was nothing wrong, told us to take them off, and they took away the life jackets. 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,” said Khaled Hassan, another survivor. Other survivors told similar stories.

“There was a fire, but the crew stopped the people from putting on life jackets so that it wouldn’t cause a panic,” said Abdel Raouf Abdel Nabi.

“There was a blaze down below,” said Nader Galal Abdel Shafi, another survivor on the same rescue boat. “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.”

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.

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 yesterday.

Mr. Mubarak ordered the government to pay $5,200 in compensation to each of the families of the dead and $2,600 to each of the survivors, the Middle East News Agency said.

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