Ship Safety, Crew Conduct Questioned in Red Sea Tragedy

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The Egyptian government says it is too early to say what caused the sinking of the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 Thursday night, in which as many as 1,000 passengers died. But questions are being asked about the role of the crew and the seaworthiness of the ferry that had been crossing from Saudi Arabia to Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

Survivors have spoken variously of an explosion, fire, smoke and severe listing that preceded the sinking of the ship, about an hour and a half after it left the Saudi port of Dubah. There were no reports that the ship had run into a coral reef, a cause of previous Red Sea shipping disasters. Egyptian Minister of Transport Mohammed Mansour, dismissing claims that the vessel had been overloaded and said it had complied with safety regulations.

Mansour reported that a fire may have broken out in the ship's engine room. And some eyewitnesses suggested that a fire may have ignited an explosion in the ship's lower-level vehicle parking bay. The ship's owner, Al Salam Maritime Transport Co. in Cairo, called the sinking "mysterious" and said the ship had experienced no technical problems before the accident. It said that poor weather, including 65-mile-an-hour winds and rough seas, may have played a part.

Survivors interviewed by TIME also blamed the disaster on the poor response of the 96-person crew, which reportedly failed to issue a distress signal. Girgis Rifaat, an Egyptian salesman returning from Kuwait, suggested that because the ship had sailed on for at least 90 minutes after the first sign of trouble, it may have been able to return to Dubah without loss of life to if it had turned back.

Rifaat and other passengers complained bitterly about the crew's lack of professionalism and organization. Several reported that crew members had spoken of a fire in the engine room but gave assurances that the problem would be solved. "They didn't tell anybody anything," Egyptian government worker Mohammed Abdallah, 41, told TIME. Saudi student Yasser Mohammad Al Rafai told TIME that the ship lacked sufficient lifeboats, a potential factor in the great loss of life later raised by Suleiman Awad, spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Some experts indicated that the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 had been an accident waiting to happen. David Osler, industrial editor of Lloyd's List in London, notes there has been a string of disasters with so-called "roll-on, roll-off" ships that carry vehicles as well as passengers, such as when the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise sank in1987 after taking on some water through the open bows. "The consensus in the industry by the mid 1980s was that this type of ship is inherently unstable to the standards they were designed to at that point in time," Osler told TIME.

Tightened rules of seaworthiness eventually led many European owners to sell off the ferries to developing countries where less stringent regulations applied. "It was a double standard: They are not safe enough for us, they are safe enough to pass on to poorer countries," Osler says. "Every year this millennium we have seen the capsize of a roll-on roll-off ferry in the Third World with hundreds of deaths. It's a bloodbath."

—With reporting by Helen Gibson/London