Image: Rescue workers stand on the wreckage of the capsized tourist boat
Kamran Jebreili  /  AP
Rescue workers stand on the wreckage of the capsized tourist boat, which was carrying up to 150 people, after bringing it to shore in Bahrain on Friday.
updated 4/1/2006 11:19:52 PM ET 2006-04-02T04:19:52

The lower deck of the cruise boat turned into a death trap: Panicked passengers, caught underwater in the overturned vessel, tried smashing through windows to escape, while their co-workers thrown into the sea from the upper deck watched.

A survivor’s account Saturday of the capsizing — in which 57 people drowned — came as Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said the vessel, a traditional dhow sailboat turned into a floating restaurant, did not have a permit to take its passengers on a dinner cruise in the waters off this tiny Gulf island kingdom.

Col. Tariq al-Hassan, a spokesman for the ministry, also said the boat’s captain, who has been detained for questioning, was not licensed to pilot the craft.

Early signs of trouble
Simon Hill, a Briton who survived the capsizing, said the boat was swaying even before it left shore, and 16 uneasy passengers disembarked. He said a representative from the tour operator urged people to move below deck to distribute weight more evenly.

“We asked the captain if he was happy to leave, and if he wasn’t he should say so, and we would not leave. At 8 o’clock we sailed,” Hill told a news conference in Manama.

The dead from Thursday night’s accident included 21 Indians and 15 Britons, including a number of executives involved in the construction of Bahrain’s World Trade Center, a nearly completed complex of two 50-story skyscrapers in the shape of sails that are to be the tiny Gulf island nation’s tallest buildings.

The construction firm Murray & Roberts Group had rented the dhow, the Al-Dana, for a party celebrating the towers’ construction. But during the cruise, the craft tipped, sending people who had been dancing on the upper deck sliding into the water. It then flipped entirely, trapping passengers on the lower deck.

Calm seas belied danger
Hill, a manager with the construction firm, said the Gulf waters were calm during the cruise. About a half-mile from shore, he said, the boat made a U-turn to head back.

“One minute we stood talking and having a good time, enjoying a very nice evening. It was a pleasant evening. And then in seconds, it went very quickly,” he said.

“I looked and I saw people sliding down the boat to one side, through the gap, and before I knew it I was in the water, under the water, and there were people everywhere in the water,” he said.

Those who were on the top deck swam away. But about half the passengers were below deck, some of them trying to smash the glass windows underwater, Hill said.

“We didn’t see anyone that was underneath come out,” he said.

Search continues for missing passengers
Another passing pleasure boat picked up some passengers from the water — including two confirmed safe Saturday — and within 10 minutes a coast guard boat arrived, followed by a U.S. Marine boat and another Bahraini coast guard vessel.

Sixty-nine of the 126 people believed on board were rescued, and al-Hassan said authorities were still searching for anyone who might be missing and uncounted.

British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells said the impact of the disaster on the British community in the tiny Gulf island nation “has been enormous.”

“It’s a relatively small ex-pat community and to lose this number of people in a single accident has been a great trauma,” Howells said Saturday.

The capsizing struck a heavy blow to the top management of the South Africa-based Murray & Roberts Group and its partners working on the construction of Bahrain’s World Trade Center.

The dead included 10 employees of Murray & Roberts and six employees of the engineering firm Atkins, which was handling the design of the World Trade Center.

The companies involved in the project were to meet to determine how the accident would affect construction, said Samir Nass, vice chairman and managing director of Nass Corp., a top partner in the construction.

“There are so many firms that are subcontractors who were also on the boat,” Nass said. “It’s too hard to tell at this stage what will be the extent of the delay, if any.”

A shopping mall at the base of the towers is scheduled for opening in August, with the office towers themselves due for opening later in 2006.

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