SAFAGA, Egypt – An aging ferry sank in the choppy waters of the Red Sea on Friday with more than 1,400 people on board, mainly Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia. Most were feared lost, but at least 324 apparently made it to safety.
Passengers said fire broke out on board the ship early in its trip. Transportation Minister Mohammed Lutfy Mansour told reporters early Saturday that the fire was "small" and that investigators were working to determine whether it was linked to the sinking. He said there was no explosion on the vessel.
At the Egyptian port of Hurghada, nearly 140 survivors arrived early Saturday — the first significant group to come to shore. They walked off the ship down a ramp, some of them barefoot and shivering, wrapped in blankets, and immediately boarded buses to take them to the hospital.
Many said the fire began between 90 minutes and 2 1/2 hours after the ship's departure, but that it kept going and the fire burned for hours.
"The fire happened about an hour or 90 minutes into the trip, but they decided to keep going. It's negligence," one survivor, Nabil Zikry, said before he was moved along by police, who tried to keep the survivors from talking to journalists.
Ahmed Elew, an Egyptian in his 20s, said he reported the fire to the ship's crew and they told him to help with the water hoses to put it out. At one point there was an explosion, he said.
When the ship began sinking, Elew said he jumped into the water and swam for several hours. He said he saw one overloaded lifeboat overturn. He eventually got into another lifeboat. "Around me people were dying and sinking," he said.
"Who is responsible for this?" he asked. "Somebody did not do their job right."
Several of the survivors shouted their anger that the rescue had taken so long.
"They left us in the water for 24 hours. A helicopter came above us and circled, we would signal and they ignored us," one man shouted. "Our lives are the cheapest in the world," another said.
A spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats, and questions were raised about the safety of the 35-year-old, refitted ship that was weighed down with 220 cars as well as the passengers.
"It's a roll-on, roll-off ferry, and there is big question mark over the stability of this kind of ship," said David Osler of the London shipping paper Lloyds List. "It would only take a bit of water to get on board this ship and it would be all over. ... The percentage of this type of ferry involved in this type of disaster is huge."
Weather may also have been a factor. There were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia's west coast.
Officials said more than 185 bodies were recovered while hundreds remained missing in the dark, chilly sea nearly 24 hours after the ship went down. One lifeboat was spotted from a helicopter during the day bobbing in the waves with what appeared to be a dozen or more passengers.
Hundreds of angry relatives of the passengers crowded for hours outside Egypt's port of Safaga, where the ferry had been heading.
"This is a dirty government, may God burn their hearts as they burned mine," one woman wailed, slapping her face in grief. "I want my brother. I have no one else in this life."
Mansour said 324 people, including a 3-year-old child, were rescued.
Some of the survivors were taken from the ferry's lifeboats, others from inflatable rescue craft dropped into the sea by helicopters, and others were pulled from the water wearing life jackets, the governor of Red Sea province, Bakr al-Rashidi, told The Associated Press.
A police official at the operations control room in Safaga said 185 bodies were pulled from the sea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Rescue efforts appeared confused. Egyptian officials initially turned down a British offer to divert a warship to the scene and a U.S. offer to send a P3-Orion maritime naval patrol aircraft to the area. Then Egypt reversed itself and asked for both — then finally decided to call off the British ship, deciding it was too far away to help, said Lt. Cdr. Charlie Brown of the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. In the end, the U.S. craft — which has the capability to search underwater from the air — was sent, but the British ship was not, he said.
Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry likely went down some 57 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada.
Any survivors still in the Red Sea could go into shock in the waters, which average in the upper 60s in February and are up to 3,000 feet deep.
Mubarak's spokesman said an investigation was under way.
"The swift sinking of the ferry and the lack of sufficient lifeboats suggests there was some violation, but we cannot say until the investigation is complete," said presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad, quoted by the semiofficial news agency MENA.
Egyptian regulations require life jackets on the boat, but implementation of safety procedures is often lax.
The ship, "Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98," left Thursday at 7:30 p.m. from the Saudi port of Dubah on a 120-mile trip to Safaga. It had been scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m.
The vessel went down between midnight and 2 a.m., when authorities lost contact with it. No distress signal was received.
The ferry was carrying 1,200 Egyptian and 112 other passengers as well as 96 crew members, the head of Al-Salaam Maritime Transport Company Mamdouh Ismail told the AP. The passengers included 99 Saudis, three Syrians, two Sudanese, and a Canadian, officials said. It was not clear where the other passengers were from.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries — many of them from impoverished families in southern Egypt who spend years abroad to earn money. They often travel by ship to and from Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, a cheaper option than flying.
But some on board the ferry were believed to be Muslim pilgrims who had overstayed their visas after last month's hajj pilgrimage to work in the kingdom.
President Bush offered his condolences.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all Egyptians and citizens of other nations who suffered losses in this terrible accident," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in Texas.
The agent for the ship in Saudi Arabia, Farid al-Douadi, said the vessel had the capacity for 2,500 passengers. The owner's Web site said 387-foot-long boat had a capacity for 1,487 passengers and crew.
The Genoa-based Italian Naval Registry, which has certified the ferry for safety since its construction in 1970, said the vessel never had any problems and passed its last structural inspection in June 2005.
In 1991, the registry oversaw the construction of two additional decks on the ferry to add passenger space for its then-owner, the Italian ferry company Tirrenia di Navigazione SpA. In doing so, the boat grew in height, and to compensate engineers also enlarged the base, said the registry's spokesman, Mario Dogliana.
First confirmation of the sinking came when another ship owned by the same company received a distress call from one of the lifeboats, Ismail said.
A ship owned by the same company, also carrying pilgrims, collided with a cargo ship at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal in October, causing a stampede among passengers trying to escape the sinking ship. Two people were killed and 40 injured.