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.