SAFAGA, Egypt — Hundreds of family members of the victims of the ferry that sank in the Red Sea stormed the offices of the shipping company on Monday. Riot police resorted to throwing tear gas in an attempt to restore order.
The ship was carrying 1,414 people when it went down. So far, only 388 survivors are accounted for, 244 passengers have been counted among the dead, and more than 700 people are still missing and feared dead.
NBC News’ Mark Mullen reports from the Egyptian port town of Safaga on how the victims’ families are coping with their anger, and how the investigation into the incident is proceeding.
Relatives of victims from the Red Sea ferry attacked the shipping company offices on Monday. What happened?
Many family members of the victims of the ferry accident have been here on the street since Friday, keeping vigil and waiting for any kind of word about the fate of their loved ones.
They are angry at two parties. Number one: the police for not being more forthcoming about whether their relatives are alive or presumed dead.
They are also furious at the ferry company, especially after they started seeing press reports of survivors interviewed, all of whom blamed the captain of the ferry for this disaster.
Specifically, there is outrage over the fact that the ferry did not turn around, back toward Saudi Arabia after a fire started on board when it was 20 miles from the Saudi shore. But, instead, the ferry reportedly tried to press ahead to reach the Egyptian shore that was 110 miles away.
Also, the ship captain and crew reportedly never officially ordered that the ship be abandoned, and never made available all of the life boats and life rafts.
For that reason, they took out their anger today on the Egypt office of the ferry company, going in there, trashing the office, setting the place on fire, ruining computers, and different things like that.
The family members are angry, frustrated, and looking for answers, as well as looking for the fates of their loved ones. Basically, they are beside themselves.
Many of the reports coming from survivors tell of all kinds of errors on part of the ship’s captain and crew. What are some of the stories that are being circulated there?
The stories are almost always the same. Not only from survivors who were passengers, but also, from crew members. Yesterday we went into one of the local hospitals where survivors are being taken and found two crew members.
I asked each of the crew members a number of questions. Number one — why did the captain not turn around? And I was told by one of the crew members that the captain believed that he could control the fire and press on.
I asked why did the ship actually sink and how did the fire play into that? What the crew members said was that after a fire broke out on board, a sprinkler system on the boat started putting out water, and the crew also used fire hoses to try to douse the flames. And that ended up putting a lot of water inside the hull of the ferry which ending up tipping it.
In addition, according to passengers, the ferry did not turn over and capsize all at once, but it was listing for about three hours. The crew members said the captain thought that he could press on, but clearly that didn’t work. The tragedy is that they could have used that time to organize an evacuation and get people into lifeboats, etc.
What sort of survivor stories have you heard?
We heard a number of survivor stories and all of them are punctuated by terrible loss.
We heard the story of one little boy, who was with his parents and another brother and sister. There was only one life preserver jacket available to the family when the boat started going under. So, they decided that the littlest boy, Mohammed Hossanein, 6, should get the life jacket.
So, he did and he floated in the sea for 36 hours by himself before he was rescued. But, when rescue workers started talking to him, they learned that his entire family had drowned. We spoke with him yesterday and he said very matter of factly, “I saw my mother and father swept into the sea.”
So, there are all kinds of just heartbreaking accounts. There are more than 700 people still missing. There are more than enough people missing to fill at least two jumbo jets, which people need to remember. It’s just an extraordinary loss.
The majority of the passengers on this ferry were not rich. These were primarily Egyptian migrant workers who go to Saudi Arabia looking for work and take this sort of economical passage back and forth between jobs.
Even now, we just came from outside the ferry terminal, and they have significantly increased the police presence in an effort to keep things calm. There are also fewer family members there because they made available an apartment complex nearby for people to wait in while they hope for news of their loved ones.
What about the ship’s captain? There are reports saying he fled the scene in a lifeboat. Where is he now and is there a massive manhunt on for him?
Egypt is now stepping up its investigation of the ferry accident. All of the hospitals where the survivors are have a cordon of police around them. No one is going in and out and criminal investigators are interviewing all of the survivors as they try to determine the official cause and who is to blame for the accident. They are talking to crew members as well.
They also want to talk to the captain, but nobody knows his whereabouts or what his fate is.
If you speak to some of the survivors, they believe that he is alive and well. They accuse him of being in one of the first life boats to take off while the ship was sinking and other passengers were still stuck on board the sinking ship. I asked some of the crew members about that and they couldn’t confirm that specifically, but that is at least what some of the surviving passengers have said.
The shipping company has identified who the captain is, but nobody has seen him. Or if they have seen him, they haven’t said where he is.
How has the government of Egypt’s President Mubarak gotten into the fray on all of this? How are they being criticized?
The family members are lashing out at absolutely everybody — primarily the ferry company, which has incidentally now offered each of the victim’s families $3,000.
I imagine that they will now look to Egypt to scrutinize the way this ferry was operated and how other ferries are operated. In general, ferries like this one that was ‘roll on, roll off’ and takes both cars and passengers do not have a good safety record worldwide.
They are used frequently, but some of the worst sea disasters in recent years have involved ferries.