SAFAGA, Egypt, (Reuters) – Hopes faded on Saturday of finding 800 people missing from an Egyptian ferry which caught fire and sank in the Red Sea in the early hours of Friday.
Rescuers have pulled 389 survivors and at least 185 bodies from the waters or from dinghies and boats near where the Al Salam 98 went down, state news agency MENA and officials said.
The 35-year-old ferry had been carrying 1,272 passengers and about 100 crew from Duba in Saudi Arabia to the Egyptian port of Safaga.
“There aren’t expected to be many survivors, because it’s been so long since the ship went down,” a source close to the operations said.
Survivors said a fire broke out below deck shortly after the ferry left port but the ship continued to sail and began to list. Out at sea, after several hours, it suddenly lurched to the side and sank within minutes, they added.
“I was 20 hours in the water … the fish started to eat us,” one survivor told reporters.
Some of the survivors, recovering in an Egyptian hospital from their traumatic voyage, said the crew assured them they were dealing with the fire but eventually evacuated the lower decks and told people to move up to the open decks.
“There was thick smoke. We asked why and they told us they were putting out the fire but it got worse,” said Rifat Said, 34, a passenger from Giza near Cairo.
“The ferry sailed on for two hours listing to the side. Then it just went onto its side and within five minutes it had sunk,” Said told reporters.
Ashraf Saeed Mohammed said he clung to a lifebelt for 16 hours. “Praise God … I had thought it was the end,” he said.
An official from the company that owned the ferry said coastal stations had not received a distress call but Egypt’s MENA news agency said another ship picked up a message from the ferry’s captain saying his ship was in danger of sinking.
Hundreds of weeping and angry relatives of passengers gathered in front of the gates of the port where the ferry should have arrived at 2 a.m. (midnight GMT) on Friday.
In the morning an official came and read out a partial list of the names of survivors to the assembled relatives.
Fathi Kamel cried out: “Allahu Akbar (God is Most Great)” when he heard that his nephew was among the survivors.
Other relatives broke down in tears when the reading ended and they had not heard the names they were waiting for.
General Mahfouz Taha, head of the Red Sea Ports Authority, said rescue efforts would continue. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is expected in Safaga on Saturday morning to review the operation and meet some of the injured and survivors.
He has ordered an immediate investigation into the disaster, the latest of several on Red Sea ferries.
Officials and experts initially said poor weather was likely to be behind the sinking of the 11,800-ton vessel.
Transport Minister Mohamed Lutfi Mansour told Egyptian television on Saturday that a fire seemed to have broken out in the ferry’s engine room.
Egyptian security restricted access to the survivors so it was not possible to obtain details about the emergency procedures aboard the ferry.
Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad said on Friday there may not have been enough lifeboats.
“The speed with which the ship sank and the lack of sufficient lifeboats indicate there was some deficiency,” he told Egyptian television.
A shipping company official said the Saudi authorities had confirmed that everything was in order when the ship sailed.
MENA news agency said the passenger list included more than 1,000 Egyptians, as well as other nationalities, including Saudis, Syrians, and a Canadian.
A sister ship of the sunken ferry, the Al Salam 95, sank in the Red Sea in October after a collision with a Cypriot commercial vessel. Almost all the passengers were saved.