The sinking of a passenger ferry in the Red Sea Friday is prompting Egyptian maritime experts to urge authorities to adopt more stringent safety standards to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.
Al Salam Maritime Transport Company, the ferry's owner, and Egyptian authorities have maintained that the ship passed inspection and met all international safety standards. But analysts are questioning how such a disaster could occur if this was the case.
"I've been working in the sea for 50 years and [Egypt's shipping standards and regulations] are not something to be proud of," says Gamal Abul Azm, an Egyptian maritime expert. "The owners of the vessel said that it had been inspected and that they followed all regulations. They can prove it on paper, but in reality there are a lot of gaps."
With some 460 survivors - out of 1,400 passengers and crew members - it is one of the deadliest maritime disasters in recent years.
Initial reports indicate that soon after departing from Dubah, Saudi Arabia, last Thursday evening, a fire started in the 35-year-old vessel's parking bay. Assuring passengers that the fire was under control, the crew decided to continue on the 120-mile journey to the Red Sea port of Safaga, Egypt.
"We told the crew, 'Let's turn back, let's call for help,' but they refused and said everything was under control," said passenger Ahmed Abdel Wahab, an Egyptian who works in Saudi Arabia.
The car deck flooded as crew members pumped water in to battle the fire. An explosion was heard and within minutes the ship began to list, and high winds reportedly helped pushed the ship over. While the ship had enough life boats for all the passengers, it reportedly sank before most of the boats could be lowered or inflated. Some survivors claimed the ship's captain and some crew members fled the sinking ship in a lifeboat. The captain is still reported missing.
Experts say that while Egypt complies with safely standards on paper, inspections are not rigorous enough and that standards should be more uniformly applied. They also call on the government to stop certifying old ships. Some of these older ships were were bought in Europe, sources say, because they didn't meet safety standards there.
"I expected [a disaster like this] a long time ago," says Mr. Abul Azm, former chairman of Timsah Shipbuilding Company, "because of the condition of vessels that can work in Egypt."
By buying older vessels and then charging cheap prices, as Al Salam Maritime Transport Company allegedly did, allows ship owners turn a much quicker profit than if they operated newer, more expensive vessels, experts say.
Analysts also questioned whether the crew members on the ship, the Al Salaam Boccaccio 98, were properly trained. If so, they should have been able to put out the fire, or at least to safely evacuate all the ship's passengers.
"The fire was going for three hours," says Wael Kaddour, a retired member of the Suez Canal Authority Board. "That was enough time to evacuate the ship safely. What happened is the result of bad management."
Analysts also asked why the crew didn't send a distress signal. Egyptian officials say they were not aware of a problem until the ship didn't arrive as scheduled in Safaga early Friday morning.
To prevent another disaster like this, maritime experts called for more frequent inspections of ships, more safety restrictions, and better training of crew members. "[Safety standards and regulations in Egypt] should be stricter and more thorough," says Salah Tolba, senior surveyor of Lloyd's Register, a prominent maritime risk management group.
In response to the growing call for better safety measures, the government says that it needs to investigate the cause of the ferry disaster first. "We must start with the investigation, with technical, legal, and maritime experts," says one high-ranking Egyptian government official. "If the investigation points to the problem of safety standards and regulations, we will look into this. At this point we have no idea of the relation between safety standards and this accident."
In Safaga, hundreds of relatives of the missing were still waiting for news Sunday. Chanting "down with the Interior Ministry, down with Mubarak," many were incensed over the lack of information and the government's handling of the disaster.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the hospital where survivors were taken, and has ordered that the families of each victim receive $5,200 and the survivors be paid $2,600.
Many of the ship's passengers were poor Egyptian workers, seeking better incomes in the relatively wealthy Gulf state of Saudi Arabia. Others were pilgrims, returning from the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, who probably couldn't afford air transportation.
• Material from the wire services was used in this report.