Officials say ferry sank hours before they knew

Egyptian family members and relatives wait for news about survivors at the Red Sea port of Safaga
Relatives wait for news about survivors at the Red Sea port of Safaga in Egypt on Feb. 4 as a navy warship carrying survivors approaches.Aladin Abdel Naby / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Egypt’s presidential spokesman said Tuesday the owners of the Red Sea ferry that sank last week, drowning about 1,000 people, did not inform the government of the disaster for nearly six hours.

Suleiman Awad emerged from a Cabinet session chaired by President Hosni Mubarak to say the government first heard from owner Al Salam Maritime Transport Co. that the ship was in danger at 7 a.m. Friday and was feared sunk at 7:45 a.m.

By most accounts, the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 sank no later than 2 a.m., five hours earlier. Other reports say the ship sank at 1 a.m., which would have made the delay in notification at least six hours.

The public did not learn of the disaster for several more hours after the government was notified.

“What really happened was that the port authority was first informed at 7 a.m. by the ship’s owners that they had lost contact with the ferry,” Awad said. “Forty-five minutes later, the company told port officials the ship may have sunk.”

Awad said the rescue center was notified “one minute later” and a plane was over the scene of the sinking by 8 a.m.

“It was followed by another rescue plane and ships of the Egyptian fleet,” he said.

The ferry set sail from Dubah, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday night, carrying more than 1,400 passengers and crew. Fierce winds whipped up a sandstorm as the vessel left port for the 130-mile crossing to Safaga.

Less than two hours into the voyage — with the ship about 40 miles off the Saudi coast — a fire broke out in the vehicle parking bay. The captain, apparently thinking the blaze had been extinguished, pressed on for Egypt, but the fire rekindled and raged out of control.

The ship sank early Friday about 60 miles from its destination. The number of survivors has been estimated at about 400.

Meanwhile, the captain of another ship owned by Al Salam Maritime, the St. Catherine, told a Cairo newspaper Tuesday he was informed by the owners as he left Safaga port in Egypt to try to make contact with the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 because they feared it was in trouble.

The St. Catherine captain, Salah Jomaa, said he left port at 2:45 a.m., meaning the company was aware the ship was in danger by that time.

Attempts to reach sunken ship
After repeatedly failing to make radio contact, Jomaa said he placed a satellite telephone call to the captain of the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 but received no answer.

Jomaa said he finally made contact at 6:57 a.m. with another officer of the ship who said he was in a lifeboat and the ship had gone down.

Jomaa said he reported the sinking to the Al Salam Maritime office in Safaga at 7:05 a.m.

The manager of the company gave a similar account to The Associated Press last week but did not provide any times.

“Our agent in Safaga informed us that the ship was late, so we started making inquiries,” said Mamdouh Orabi, an El Salam Maritime manager. “At the same time, one of the ships we operate (the St. Catherine) was heading for Dubah.

“We informed its crew, which later reported that there were people on a rescue boat in the sea, so we notified the relevant authorities.”