SAFAGA, Egypt - An aging ferry sank in the choppy waters of the Red Sea on Friday with more than 1,400 people on board, mainly Egyptian workers returning from Saudi Arabia. Most were feared lost but officials said at least 314 made it to safety.
A spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak said the ferry did not have enough lifeboats, and questions were raised about the safety of the 35-year-old, refitted ship that was weighed down with 220 cars as well as the passengers.
"It's a roll-on, roll-off ferry, and there is big question mark over the stability of this kind of ship," said David Osler of the London shipping paper Lloyds List. "It would only take a bit of water to get on board this ship and it would be all over. … The percentage of this type of ferry involved in this type of disaster is huge."
Weather may also have been a factor. There were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia's west coast.
Officials said more than 185 bodies were recovered while hundreds remained missing in the dark, chilly sea nearly 24 hours after the ship went down. One lifeboat was spotted from a helicopter during the day bobbing in the waves with what appeared to be about a dozen or more passengers.
Hundreds of angry relatives of the passengers crowded for hours outside Egypt's port of Safaga, where the ferry had been heading. They shouted at police barring the iron gates and complained they had no information on their loved ones.
"This is a dirty government, may God burn their hearts as they burned mine," one woman wailed, slapping her face in grief. "I want my brother. I have no one else in this life."
A Transport Ministry spokesman said 314 people, including a 3-year-old child, were rescued.
Some of the survivors were taken from the ferry's lifeboats, others from inflatable rescue craft dropped into the sea by helicopters, and others were pulled from the water wearing life jackets, the governor of Red Sea province, Bakr al-Rashidi, told The Associated Press.
A police official at the operations control room in Safaga said 185 bodies were pulled from the sea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Well after nightfall, there were contradictory reports whether any survivors had been brought to shore. A security official said 20 had been sent to a Safaga hospital, but police at the port's entrance told families none was back. Police ringed the hospital.
Rescue efforts also appeared confused. Egyptian officials initially turned down a British offer to divert a warship to the scene and a U.S. offer to send a P3-Orion maritime naval patrol aircraft to the area. The British craft, HMS Bulwark, headed from the southern Red Sea where it was operating, then turned around when the offer was rejected.
But then Egypt reversed itself and asked for both the Orion and the Bulwark to be sent - then finally decided to call off the Bulwark, deciding it was too far away to help, said Lt. Cdr. Charlie Brown of the U.S. 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. In the end, the Orion - which has the capability to search underwater from the air - was sent, but the Bulwark was not, he said.
Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the 35-year-old ferry likely went down some 57 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada.
Saudi ships were patrolling waters off their shore to hunt for survivors, but found none, a senior Saudi security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Any survivors still in the Red Sea could go into shock as temperatures fell in the already cold waters, which average in the upper 60s in February. The waters in the area are up to 3,000 feet deep.
Mubarak's spokesman said an investigation was under way.
"The swift sinking of the ferry and the lack of sufficient lifeboats suggests there was some violation, but we cannot say until the investigation is complete," said presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad, quoted by the semiofficial news agency MENA.
Egyptian regulations require life jackets on the boat, but implementation of safety procedures is often lax. It was not known if the ship had enough life jackets and whether the passengers put them on when the ship sank.
The ship, "Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98," left Thursday at 7:30 p.m. from the Saudi port of Dubah on a 120-mile trip to Safaga, south of Hurghada. It had been scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m.
The vessel went down between midnight and 2 a.m., when authorities lost contact with it. No distress signal was received.
The ferry was carrying 1,200 Egyptian and 112 other passengers as well as 96 crew members, the head of Al-Salaam Maritime Transport Company Mamdouh Ismail told the AP. The passengers included 99 Saudis, three Syrians, two Sudanese, and a Canadian, officials said. It was not clear where the other passengers were from.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries - many of them from impoverished families in southern Egypt who spend years abroad to earn money. They often travel by ship to and from Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea, a cheaper option than flying. The Saudi port of Dubah is a major transit point for them.
But some on board the ferry were believed to be Muslim pilgrims who had overstayed their visas after last month's hajj pilgrimage to work in the kingdom.
President Bush offered his condolences.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all Egyptians and citizens of other nations who suffered losses in this terrible accident," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in Texas.
The agent for the ship in Saudi Arabia, Farid al-Douadi, said the vessel had the capacity for 2,500 passengers. But the owner's Web site said 387-foot-long boat had a capacity for 1,487 passengers and crew.
The Genoa-based Italian Naval Registry, which has certified the ferry for safety since its construction in 1970, said the vessel never had any problems and passed its last structural inspection in June 2005.
In 1991, the registry oversaw the construction of two additional decks on the ferry to add passenger space for its then-owner, the Italian ferry company Tirrenia di Navigazione SpA. In doing so, the boat grew in height, and to compensate engineers also enlarged the base, said the registry's spokesman, Mario Dogliana.
First confirmation of the sinking came when another ship owned by the same company, the Saint Catherine, received a distress call from one of the lifeboats just as it arrived in Dubah from Safaga, Ismail said. The Saint Catherine notified the company headquarters, which told the Egyptian authorities.
A ship owned by the same company, also carrying pilgrims, collided with a cargo ship at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal in October, causing a stampede among passengers trying to escape the sinking ship. Two people were killed and 40 injured.
On the Net:
Ferry owner's Web site: http://www.elsalammaritime.com/