Eyewitness: 'People Knew They Were Going to Die'

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Muhammad Abdallah was on the deck of the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 a few hours after it left Saudi Arabia when he smelled smoke. Uneasy, the 41-year-old government employee asked crew members of the 1,400-passenger boat what the problem was. "They said not to worry, that the engine had problems, but they were fixing it," says Abdallah, who like many aboard the doomed ship was returning from Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. "They didn't call anybody or tell anybody anything."

But as time passed, the 35-year-old ferry began to list to one side as a fire that had begun below deck spread to other parts of the ship. Passengers began to panic. The crew ordered everyone to one side of the boat to provide a counterweight to the tilting deck as they tried to put out the fire.

A few hours of anxious sailing later, Abdallah tells Time, the boat suddenly began to roll over. "The people knew they were going to die," he says. "It was all over in less than five minutes." Desperate passengers, including Abdallah and his friend Muhammad, jumped off the boat and into the sea, swimming for their lives. Abdallah was able to reach a life boat, but his friend, like most others on the doomed ferry, could not, and drowned.

Abdallah then spent more than 22 hours crammed with 50 others in a small inflatable lifeboat, as families of the ferry's passengers and crew gathered anxiously at the Egyptian port Safag, hoping for news. Wrapped in a shawl and red checkered turban, Radwan Sidi Muhammad, 50, wandered in a crowd of thousands gathered in the chilly night air outside the port gates, clutching a photo of his nephew, Haitham Azzaddin. The black-haired, soft-eyed 20-year-old was among the passengers on the ferry. "We heard the news on TV and we knew he was coming today on the ferry so we came as soon as we could, but we have had no news," said Muhammad, his eyes red and weary from lack of sleep and grief.

Like many distraught families searching for their loved ones Friday and Saturday, Haitham Azzadin's relatives came out in force to await news of his fate. More than 50 men and women from his extended family drove nearly 200 miles, (about three or four hours) from the rural province of Sohag to pace the sidewalks, begging silent riot police guarding the port for any information or shred of hope. Among those waiting was a daughter searching for her widowed mother, a man in despair over an entire missing family of seven, including five children between the ages of 18 months and 14 years, and an uncle looking for his 17-year-old nephew who loved soccer and wanted to be a doctor. Tensions were high and information scarce. When names of confirmed ferry passengers were announced, even before it was clear who had lived and died, people collapsed in the dirt and wailed, crying out "My father!" or "My son!" Some thrashing on the ground in agony, others had to be carried away by weeping relatives.

Samir Nimr, the 50-year-old owner of a Cairo-based construction company, was searching for 13 members of his extended family who had been passengers on the ferry, including his young nephews, Nabil Zikri Tariyan, 25, and Nasser Fakari Fahim, 30. Both young men were new fathers returning home to see their babies for the first time after a year working abroad. Sixty members of their family had sped to Safaga from the capital Cairo and Sohag, in Upper Egypt, hoping for news.

For Abdallah and other survivors waiting hours for rescue, relief — in the form of an Egyptian naval vessel — came long after dark, almost a day after their ordeal had begun. Wrapped in blankets at the Hurghada hospital, Abdullah felt blessed to be alive, but furious at the Al-Salam ferry company, crew and the Egyptian government, who he blamed for the accident and its aftermath. "This did not have to happen," he says.

At the same hospital, a relieved Nimr said his nephew Nabil's parents had received a phone call from their son to say he had been rescued. Nimr had rushed to the hospital from Safaga, 45 minutes away, in hopes of confirming the miracle with his own eyes. As he and other relatives waited nervously but hopefully on the steps of the hospital for the arrival of ambulances carrying survivors, their mobiles began ringing off the hook. Family and friends back in Sohag had spotted Nabil being interviewed on Al Jazeera television. "Inshallah, he will live to see his daughter," Nimr told Time. "We pray that Nasser and the others are alive too, but we still have no news." With 378 survivors reported so far but more than 1,000 feared dead or missing, Egypt remains torn with anguish as relatives begin searching the morgues and pressing for answers.