Will Darkness Spell Doom?

Feb. 3, 2006 — -- Darkness fell over the Red Sea as rescuers continued to find bodies and survivors from a sunken Egyptian passenger ferry.

The ferry, carrying about 1,400 people, sank in the Red Sea early today during bad weather. Rescue ships and helicopters pulled dozens of survivors and bodies from the water. At least 263 escaped on lifeboats, an official said. Coast Guard vessels pulled about 185 bodies from the sea.

The ferry, sailing from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, disappeared from radar overnight.

Most of the passengers were Egyptian workers returning from their jobs in Saudi Arabia. At least four Saudi and four Egyptian ships were involved in the search effort, arriving about 10 hours after the 35-year-old ferry was believed to have sank.

Officials say there were no distress calls from the ship.

"Dozens of bodies were picked up from the sea. … They were from the ferry," a police source at the port of Safaga told Reuters.

Four Egyptian rescue ships reached the scene this afternoon, around 10 hours after the ship likely went down. British naval officials ordered a warship heading to the scene to abandon its rescue efforts, declining to explain why.

There were concerns the death toll could rise because survivors can go into shock as temperatures fall in the cold waters. Temperatures average in the upper 60s Fahrenheit in February.

The ship, Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, was also carrying around 220 vehicles. It went down 40 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada, said Mahfouz Taha Marzouk, the head of the Egyptian Maritime Authority.

Mystery Surrounds Sinking

The cause of the accident was not immediately known, but there were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia's west coast.

Marzouk said that search teams in helicopters had spotted bodies and one lifeboat carrying three people near where the ship was last seen on the radar screens.

"It only takes a small amount of water to get onboard, and it sets up a sort of uncontrollable rocking effect that actually turns the vessel over quite quickly," said David Osler, of the shipping newspaper Lloyd's List. "They can sink in no time flat."

The ship disappeared from radar screens shortly after sailing from the Saudi port of Dubah at 7 p.m. Egypt time on Thursday night, Egyptian maritime officials in Suez said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, according to the AP. The ship was due to have arrived at Egypt's port of Safaga -- 120 miles away -- at 3 a.m. Egypt time.

Farid al-Douadi, a Saudi agent, said the Salaam 98 was in good condition and had left port with fewer than the maximum 2,500 passengers it is permitted to carry.

Marzouk said the ship -- built in 1971 and renovated in 1990 in an Egyptian shipyard -- was carrying 1,318 people, including a crew of 96.