SAFAGA, Egypt – It was a story told over and over by survivors of the sunken ferry. A fire in the hold raged out of control and smoke engulfed the ship during an unusually rough Red Sea crossing. Passengers gathered on deck looking for life jackets and lifeboats but found no help from the crew.
Abdul Muhsin Rayan, a 35-year-old from Sohag — who like most of the passengers had been working in Saudi Arabia — said the crew told passengers not to put on life jackets because that would panic the women and children.
"From the captain on down, no one gave us any instructions on what to do," he said from a Safaga hospital bed where he lay recuperating from hours adrift in the tumultuous sea.
While some officials said the ship had plenty of lifesaving craft and life vests, many of the survivors said the crew did nothing to deploy the rafts or help passengers into equipment that could have saved hundreds more lives.
By the end of Sunday, three days after the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 went down about 55 miles off the Egyptian coast, just 401 of about 1,400 passengers had been rescued.
That figure — up by 25 from the day before — was an indication that few more survivors would be found. A total of 195 bodies have been recovered, leaving about 800 others missing and believed drowned when the ship went down after making most of the 120-mile crossing from Saudi Arabia.
Among the survivors was 5-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Hassan, kept afloat by a life ring for more than 20 hours. Doctors said the boy was in good condition but apparently had lost his parents, sister and brother.
Khaled Hassan, a 27-year-old from the village of al-Dhobiyah near Luxor, who was traveling home after working in Kuwait, said he saw the captain jump into a life boat as passengers were left behind. It was impossible to verify his story.
Another survivor, Hassan Bashir from Syria, told reporters that the captain and crew members were among the first to leave the ship. "They took a boat and left," he said.
Egyptian officials said the captain was missing.
Outside the port in Safaga where survivors were being taken, about 100 protesters shouted angrily at police and criticized Egypt's president for not providing more information. On Saturday, family members threw stones at police.
"If you don't have the bodies, at least give us (death) certificates and let us go. You have been torturing us for days," shouted Heshmat Mohammed Hassan from Sohag, whose brother is still missing. He and others criticized the government for what they called slow response to the disaster.
The families need death certificates to claim a payment of $5,200 that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has said should go to the family of each victim. The president said survivors would each get $2,600.
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, were silent.
Mubarak has ordered an investigation into the ferry sinking.
But independent Egyptian newspapers have accused his government of protecting the ship's owner, who they say is close to a top official in Mubarak's government. The weekly independent paper Soutelomma said two other ferries owned by the same company had sunk in the past 10 years, without the government properly investigating or putting the company's owner on trial.
Mustafa al-Bakri, part of a delegation of more than 20 members of parliament who went to the port, said lawmakers would try to investigate why Egyptian officials received no distress call from the ship.
He also said other ships owned by the company had been involved in tragedies.
The ship was owned by El Salam Maritime, which issued a statement declaring the vessel complied "with all the international safety regulations and treaties and (was) certified to make international voyages."
The tragedy struck a deep core of discontent among Egyptians, who are suffering from an economic downturn.
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.
The Egyptian government's rescue effort got off to a slow start. Initial offers of help from the United States and Britain were rejected, and four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene only by Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the ferry was believed to have capsized.
The crisis began when a fire broke out in the aging vessel's parking bay, as it was about 20 miles from the Saudi shore where it had sailed from, survivors said Sunday. The crew decided to push across the Red Sea, to try to reach Egypt's shores 100 miles away.
As the fire grew out of control, many passengers moved to one side of the 35-year-old vessel. An explosion was heard, and high winds helped topple the unbalanced ship.
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.