Friday, February 03, 2006

Confusion over Al Salam tragedy - at least 1000 dead

Top Al Salam 89. Botttom Al Salam Boccaccio 98

There is confusion over the identity of the ferry that sank in the Red Sea between the Saudi port of Duba and the Egyptian port of Safaga. About 100 people have been picked up from lifeboats, but it is feared that the death toll will approach 1000.

At the time Egyptian maritime officials said that it was the Al Salam 89 that disappeared from the radar screens in the Red Sea last night. The vessel was first said to be the Al Salam 98, then it was named as the Al Salam 89, now it is said to be the Al Salam Boccaccio 98.

There is no vessel Al Salam 98, but the Egyptian company El Salam does operate ferries named Al Salam 89 and Al Salam Boccaccio 98. The Al Salam 89 (top picture) was built as a RoRo cargo vessel in 1978, by Ishikawajima Ship and Chemical Company, in Japan, and converted, by El Salem into a RoRo ferry. The Al Salam Boccaccio 98 (lower picture) was built as a RoRo ferry by Fincantieri, in Italy, in 1969.

The Boccaccio was last certified by the Italian Classification Society, RINA,in October 2005 and is said to have a capacity of 1100 passengers and 220 cars, not 2500, as has been stated by Farid al-Douadi, the vessels Saudi agent.

Both the Al Salam 89 and the Al Salam Boccaccio 98 are owned by the Saudi Arabian Al Blagha Group, which has a joint venture, in ferry operations, with the El Salam Shipping Company. The Egyptian company is the engineering and technical operation arm and owns one third of the business, the remaining two thirds are owned by Al Blagha. The ferries run on a daily Red Sea service between Port Safaga, in Egypt and Port Dhuba, in Saudi Arabia. Operations in Dhuba are under the Al Blagha Shipping Agency Division’s flag.

UPDATE: Red Sea governor Bakr el-Rashidi said 300 people had been rescued and a shipping company executive said the survivors were on their way to Safaga or had arrived.

The ship, which was carrying 42 vehicles, was of a type that can sink quickly if water enters through one of the doors through which vehicles drive aboard, experts said. That happened with the ferries Herald of Free Enterprise off Belgium in 1987 and Estonia in the Baltic in 1994.

Most of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, officials said, but at this time of year many Egyptians are still on their way home from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

There were 1,272 passengers: 1,158 Egyptians, 99 Saudis, six Syrians, four Palestinians, a Canadian, a Yemeni, an Omani, a Sudanese and one person from the United Arab Emirates. The ship had a crew of close to 100.

The London-based Lloyds Marine Intelligence Service, citing the Egyptian Defence Ministry, said the ship was believed to have sunk about half way across the Red Sea, which is some 120 miles (200 km) wide at that point.

The Saint Catherine, another ferry travelling the same route overnight in the opposite direction, received a distress message in which the Al Salam captain said his ship was in danger of sinking.

But coastal stations received no SOS signal from the crew, said a shipping company official. The weather had been very poor overnight on the Saudi side, with heavy winds and rain, he said.

The small number of survivors recovered so far and the lack of a distress signal received by coast guards suggested that the crew had little time to take emergency measures.

Most of the passengers are believed to be pilgrims returning from the annual hajj to Mecca, which ended last month.


The British assault ship HMS Bulwark is going to the aid of passengers who were on board the El Salam Maritime Transport. Although the ferry vanished from radar screens, at 7 pm local time, it was not reported as missing until after it failed to dock in Egypt, some 8 hours later. It was due to arrive at 3am local time, but its radar signature vanished when it was 62 miles from Dubah.


Another El Salam Maritime ship, the Pride of Al Salam 95, was lost in the Red Sea, last October, after colliding with a container ship. The vessel had left the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah on the 16/10/2005 with around 1466 people onboard, mainly Egyptians returning home after performing the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The ferry was awaiting safe passage to enter the port of Suez when she was rammed by the Cypriot registered cargo ship Jebal Ali, which had just cleared the southern part of the Suez Canal. The cargo ship ran into the side of the ferry, tearing a 5m diameter hole in her side in the vicinity of the engine room. Almost all passengers were saved, because the two ships locked together and the ferry remained afloat long enough for the passengers to board the cargo ship. Once the two vessels parted, when the cargo ship went astern, the Pride of Al Salam 95 sank in a few minutes.


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