/ Jimmy's Corner: The Egyptian ferry between reality and fairytales!

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006 

The Egyptian ferry between reality and fairytales!

In brief, an Egyptian ferry - Al Salam Boccaccio '98- sank in the Red Sea as it was carrying 1414 passangers, who are mainly Egyptians who work in Saudi Arabia and were going home to spend vacations. Rescue operations started to MOVE 7 hours after the ship sank. I have been searching for answers to my questions in the past few days trying to reach a conclusion or to figure something out of this whole mess. I say I have reached conclusions that are not 100% sure, however, pictures of misery, frustration and anger just stress on the tragedy the victims' families suffer. Yesterday night I was about to post this entry but an Egyptian talk show (El Beit Beitak) stopped me as they were debating the ferry disaster. So here I am introducing a conclusion of what I thought and what seems to true about the ferry and what really sounds like fairytales.

The very first fact that strikes me very hard is that the EGYPTIAN ferry raised a PANAMANIAN flag. This fact made me a bit confused, as why an Egyptian ship should raise the flag of a country it never belonged to. Editor-in-chief of the independent al-Usbu newspaper and MP Mustafa Bakry’s statement to BBC News guided me somehow into the right direction. Al-Salam company, which owns the ferry, used to purchase used ferries from Genoa, Palermo and Greece, then repair these ships and turn them into transportation ships raising the Panamanian flags to avoid Egyptian regulations.

This leads us to the point that there might be corruption inside the company itself that resulted in the ferry tragedy. But first there are more important points about the disaster itself that need to be examined.

Stories of eye-witnesses who survived the accident say that there was fire in the garage of the ferry. One of the eye-witnesses said that he was the first to see the smoke in the garage as he was ASLEEP ON THE STAIRS to the garage. He woke up smelling smoke to his lungs (where the bloody fire alarms are?) and he called a sailor on the ferry who ran up to tell the captain. Then it seems like the fire was too big to handle (isn’t the bloody ferry equipped to face big fires?) and the ship started sinking. There are stories that the captain decided to go back to Duba (the port from which he started the journey) then changed his mind back to Safaga (the Egyptian destination port) then again back to Duba then back to Safaga then the ferry sank. This story is not assured by eye-witnesses and seems to be illogical looking at who the captain is.

The ferry’s captain is Admiral Sayed Omar, nicknamed Captain Omar. He was chosen as one of the best 15 captains in the world. And he was considered the best in the Middle East. And take this, he used to work in the Atlantic and Indian oceans and the Japanese Maritime authorities honored him after saving his ship from a hurricane in the Indian Ocean. Thus, it sounds too stupid to throw the blame over Captain Omar, who is still missing and seems to be considered dead.

The fact that one of the passengers was asleep on the stairs to the ferry’s garage makes me think about the real capacity of the ship, and whether the ship is well equipped with life boats enough to carry all passengers in such situations. Some striking news came on Yahoo News: “An official at the maritime authority control room in Suez (…) said about 150 more survivors were still known to be on lifeboats. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.” which means only 10% of the passengers could get into life boats. Moreover, there are survivors who told stories about the crew taking their life-jackets off and telling them everything was okay minutes before the ship started sinking. These stories make me ask if the crew was trained well to handle such situations or not???

Then comes the surprise, another ship which is Saint Catrina received an SOS signal from a second rank officer from Al Salam ’98 saying that the ship sank at 1:15 am and they need help. The SOS signal was received at 6:08 am which means 5 HOURS after the ship already sank, and the signal came from a walkie-talkie the officer had with him before jumping into the water (why didn't they use the damn SOS device on the ferry?) . That walkie-talkie’s range is between 2-5 kilometers, which shows that Saint Catrina’s position was near the place where the ship sank. Captain Salah Goma’a who was in charge of the SC ship, called the company and they told him to GO ON HIS JOURNEY. Seems like all clues point to the company as the one responsible for the whole disaster. And sounds like questions about the sailors, the ferry, the flag, the fire alarm and the SOS signals will be answered if we look at the company itself.

Looking at the company’s profile, it was found out that the company came into maritime business in 1990 and it owned just one ship used for tours in the Nile. Suddenly, this company grew so quickly and became the SOLE company working on the line between Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea. This fact brings to me a question whether there is some government corruption behind the rising of this company so quickly and having no competetion whatsoever. The company bought all its ships from Palermo, Genoa (Italy) and Greece and they were all used ships and used for transporting CARS NOT PASSENGERS. One of the workers in Al Salam company sent a message to El Beit Beitak TV show saying that Al Salam ’98 (the ferry) was burnt and repaired in France before the company purchases it. Moreover, he added that the company makes them sign before every voyage a paper saying that they are responsible for their own lives (claims that has been denied by Captain Salah Goma’a). Moreover, the Italian company from which Al Salam company purchased its ships signed an accord with Al Salam that it is not responsible for any consequences if these ships are used for passenger transportation.

And here is the surprise, all the ships Al Salam owns are supervised and maintained by Al Salam TeleStar, a company owned by the son of the owner of Al Salam company.

The question now is how this company broke the Egyptian maritime laws?
The Egyptian maritime laws stress that no ship older than 20 years old will be authorized to work on Egyptian maritime lines. However, the laws never specified a maximum age for these ships. No wonder the ship Al Salam ’98 was 35 years old (that’s why Al Salam raised a Panamanian flag as the Egyptian regulations are tough). Additionally, in the Egyptian laws a ship should contact its company first if there are any problems, and then the company contacts the Egyptian authorities (sounds too dumb doesn’t it?). That's why there was not direct contact between the ferry and the Egyptian port Safaga.

Here, MP Mustafa Bakry, who is now a member in a committee sent by the People’s Assembly (the Egyptian Parliament) that is interrogating everyone connected to the disaster, gives a scenario of what they think happened before the ferry sank. Of course after they took into consideration the stories of eye witnesses, they reached this scenario:

  1. Fire started in the ship’s garage, fire alarm is not working.
  2. Captain Omar called his company through the satellite phone, they told him to go on.
  3. Fire came out of control, Captain Omar calls again, they tell him to go on to Safaga.
  4. It proved that the SOS systems on the ship were not working for three months, therefore, no SOS signal was received from the ship during the fire problem and before sinking.
  5. Captain Salah Goma’a took off with his ship Saint Catrina at 2:45, received a signal from a surviving second rank officer from Al Salam ’98 at 6:00 AM telling him the ferry sank at 1:15 AM.
  6. Captain Salah Goma’a called the company and they told him to go on his journey (passengers from Saint Catrina said that their ship was about to sink and it had 1800 passengers, as there was strong winds and high waves that day).
  7. After Captain Salah Goma’a’s call the company called the Egyptian authorities that moved to search for survivors 1 hour later.
This means that even those who survived the accident were kept in the sea in that bad weather and high waves for more than 6 hours before someone goes to help them. Moreover, there is another tragedy with the rescue operations and the way the disaster was handled after that, which I will blog about soon.

***Angry whisper: Al Salam Maritime Company owned a ship that sank last October after crashing into another ship near Suez. The whole thing reminds me of the Alaska Airlines disaster

More to come soon….

Sources:
BBC News
Yahoo News
El Beit Beitak TV show
Egyptian Newspapers (al-Usbu', al-Masry al-Yawm, Al Akhbar)
Egyptian Sandmonkey blog

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