SAFAGA, Egypt – The series of tragic errors that apparently claimed more than 1,000 lives on an Egyptian ferry escalated when the crew decided to push across the Red Sea despite the fire burning in the aging vessel's parking bay, survivors said Saturday.
The Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 had sailed only about 20 miles from the Saudi shore, but its crew instead tried to reach Egypt's shores 110 miles away. Only 376 survivors had been rescued by late Saturday.
"We told the crew, 'Let's turn back, let's call for help,' but they refused and said everything was under control," said passenger Ahmed Abdel Wahab, 30, an Egyptian who works in Saudi Arabia.
Passengers began panicking, and crew members locked up some women in their cabins, Wahab and another survivor said, though many others being treated in Safaga hospitals Saturday said that was not true.
As the blaze grew out of control, passengers not locked in their rooms moved to one side of the 35-year-old vessel. An explosion was heard, and high winds helped push the unbalanced ship over. The ship quickly sank with more than 1,400 passengers and crew and 220 cars aboard.
News reports on Saturday said the ship's captain and some of the crew fled their drowning vessel in one of the first lifeboats to launch.
Despite the fire, the ship had managed to get within about 55 miles of the Egyptian port of Hurghada, according to official accounts.
At the port of Safaga — the ship's original destination — relatives and friends of passengers begged authorities for information. When there was none, some banged on the iron gates trying to storm the docks.
Riot police with truncheons pushed the frantic crowd away from the port compound. Angry relatives threw stones, and some police could be seen hurling them back.
Shaaban el-Qott, 55, from Qena, Egypt, was looking for his cousin. He had been waiting at the port since Friday morning and spent the night on the street.
"No one is telling us anything. All I want to know if he's dead or alive. We rely on God. May God destroy Hosni Mubarak!" el-Qott shouted to a reporter Saturday, referring to the Egyptian president. "This government was supposed to throw this ship away and get a new one."
The rescue effort got off to a slow start. Initial offers of help were rejected, and two days after the ship set sail from Dubah, Saudi Arabia, just 376 survivors had been found. The ship's captain was reported missing.
Egyptian officials initially rejected a British offer to divert a warship to the scene and a U.S. offer to send a P3-Orion maritime naval patrol aircraft. Egypt reversed itself, but in the end only the Orion — which can search underwater from the air — was sent.
Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry was believed to have capsized.
Many survivors complained that crew members discouraged them from putting on life jackets and said they did nothing to put lifeboats in service when it became obvious the ship would sink.
"It was like watching the movie Titanic," said Sayed Abdul Hakim, a 32-year-old painter who worked in Kuwait. "None of the crew brought down life boats or even told us how to use them. I swam for three hours. Then I spotted a rubber boat and I climbed in. I stayed there for 18 hours. I felt I was a dead man."
Another survivor, Nabil Taghyan, 27, said he saw the captain and crew flee in lifeboats.
"The captain took the first speed boat, even though he should go last," Taghyan told The New York Times, according to its online edition Saturday.
The tragedy struck a deep core of discontent among Egyptians, who are suffering from a considerable economic downturn and increased unemployment.
"Had the government made any job opportunities available at home, these people wouldn't have been forced to go abroad in the first place," said Moustafa Zayed, 24, whose father worked as a contractor in Saudi Arabia and was on the ship. "Had he stayed (in Egypt) we wouldn't have had money to buy food."
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.
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.
Mubarak flew to Hurghada, about 40 miles farther north, on Saturday and visited survivors in two hospitals. Television pictures of the visit, which normally would have carried sound of Mubarak's conversations, were silent.
During the visit, Mubarak ordered that the families of each victim be paid $5,200 in compensation and the survivors $2,600 each.
In a televised address, the president said, "We pray that God almighty may count (the victims) among his martyrs."
A group of nearly 140 survivors came ashore at Hurghada shortly before dawn Saturday. Wrapped in blankets, they walked down a rescue ship's ramp, some of them barefoot and shivering, and boarded buses for a hospital.
Wahab, a martial arts instructor, said he spent 20 hours in the sea, sometimes holding on to a barrel from the ship and later taking a lifejacket from a dead body.
Ahmed Elew, an Egyptian in his 20s, said he went to the ship's crew to report the fire and they ordered him to help 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 capsize but managed to stay afloat long enough to find another.
"Around me people were dying and sinking," he said. "Who is responsible for this? Somebody did not do their job right. These people must be held accountable."
Mubarak spokesman Suleiman Awad said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats and an investigation was under way into the ship's seaworthiness. But later, Maj. Gen. Sherin Hasan, chairman of the maritime section of the Transportation Ministry, said there were more than enough lifeboats for the number of passengers on the ferry.
Hasan said the captain of the vessel, whom he did not name, was missing.
Mahfouz Taha, head of Egyptian Red Sea Ports authority in Safaga, reported that 376 people were saved. He confirmed the fire started in the parking bay of the vessel.
The ship left Dubah at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on the 120-mile trip to Safaga, where it was scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m. It disappeared from radar screens between midnight and 2 a.m., and no distress signal was received.