Egypt Probes Cause of Ferry Disaster

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The approximately 1,300 passengers aboard the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 which sank in the Red Sea overnight were mostly poor Egyptians heading home. Traveling to the Red Sea port of Safaga, they included laborers working in Saudi Arabia, families returning from visiting relatives employed in the Kingdom and possibly some pilgrims headed back from the Hajj. Disaster struck after midnight Thursday, when a torrent of water flooded the ferry and plunged the vessel into the depths about 250 miles south of the Suez Canal.

Frantic search-and-rescue efforts by the Egyptian coast guard throughout Friday pulled only about 290 survivors out of the sea, indicating that 1,000 or more others may have perished. That would make the Boccaccio 98 one of the worst maritime tragedies in history. Most of the survivors were sent to hospitals in Hurghada, a major international resort on what Egypt calls its "Red Sea Riviera."

Maritime officials were puzzled by the failure of the ship's crew to send a distress signal when disaster struck on the 120-mile journey from the Saudi port of Dubah to Safaga, perhaps an indication of how swiftly the calamity may have occurred. Early indications were that choppy waters entered the lower level of the ship, a "roll-on, roll-off" vessel equipped to load and unload vehicles quickly of a type prone to such weather-related mishaps. One scenario that investigators will be looking at is whether the Boccaccio 98 ran into one of the beautiful yet hazardous coral reefs for which the Red Sea is famous. In 1991, another passenger ferry, the Salem Express, sank near Safaga after colliding with a reef, causing the deaths of 460 people. If the Boccaccio 98 tragedy turns out to be a repeat of the Salem Express mishap, Egyptian maritime authorities may face pressure to retire the "roll-on, roll-off" ferries from Egypt's commercial fleet before another disaster strikes.