Poor Operator safety cost lives in Red Sea

Andy Newman


Around 700 people may have died in the recent sinking of the Egyptian ferry Al Salam Boccaccio 98 in the Red Sea.


According to specialised industry publisher “Boating yachting and Marina News”, the Boccaccio 98 is the third ferry operated by the El Salam company to sink in less than 4 years. Understandably, the poor safety record has caused a storm of fury in Egypt, and it has prompted the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights to send a delegation to the ports of Safaga and Hurghada to investigate the incident and question those responsible. This is in parallel to a government investigation, which is widely expected to be a whitewash. "There is an unpleasant stench coming from the accidents involving ships carrying the Al-Salam name," writes Majdi Mihana in Egyptian paper Al-Misri al-Yawm. He asks why the government was quick "to deny or rule out any negligence by the owner of the ship or its representative". "First it was Al-Salam 90, then Al-Salam 95 and now Al-Salam 98," Mihana writes, adding that "if responsibility is not determined this time, then such accidents bearing the Al-Salam name will continue".


Previous Disasters

Boccaccio 98’s sister ship, the Al Salam Petrarca 90, went down on June 22, 2002, after also catching fire, shortly after leaving Dubai, en route to Safaga. The passengers were evacuated before she sank, but one person died and ten were injured.

Another El Salam ship, the Pride of Al Salam 95, was lost in the Red Sea, in October 2005, after colliding with a container ship. Up to 11 people may have died in the incident, killed either by the impact of the collision or in the stampede as passengers attempted to get to safety as quickly as possible. At least a further 98 of the ferry's passengers were being reported as injured. The Pride of Al Salam 95, was originally called the Free Enterprise VI, and was the sister ship of the Herald of Free Enterprise, which sunk causing 187 deaths in Zeebruge in 1987.

The Civil Observatory for Human Rights (COHR), a recently established NGO, has pointed out that the ship was insured, and the operator “Al-Salam, has already received immense amounts of compensation from insurance companies for two previous sinkings."


The Ship was probably safe

Early media reports suggested that the ship lost last week, the Al Salam Boccaccio 98, was also a sister off the ill fated herald of Free enterprise, but this is not true. The fault seems to lie with the operators, rather than with any design issues.


The Al Salam Boccaccio 98 was a passenger ferry with a stern opening car deck and a conventional bow – not a Roll on Roll Off (RORO) ship like the Herald of Free Enterprise.  The Boccaccio 98 was originally built for an Italian operator and sailed between Italy and Tunisia until 1991, when she underwent a major transformation, including additional safety features,  at the respected Industrie Navali Meccaniche Affini to provide a much larger passenger capacity of 1300.

In 2002, it was leased to Marini Travels, to provide a service between Savona, in Italy, and Tangiers and, in 2004, First Beirut Lines leased it to use on its Beirut to Ancona, (Italy) service. So until a few months ago the ship was operating to European safety standards, which had been strengthened following the loss of the 15000 tonne ferry Estonia in 1994 with 852 deaths.


Operator incompetence

Al-Misri al-Yawm editor-in-chief Majdi al-Jalad says "passengers had to wrestle against death, its waves and sharks and the winter cold for more than 12 hours before rescue teams arrived in visible confusion". "As we made no effort to rescue the passengers from 2300 on Thursday to noon on Friday, how can we ask the raging sea and hungry sharks to be more merciful to our people?"

According to the Guardian “Surviving passengers have accused the captain and crew of negligence, saying the captain, Sayed Omar, abandoned the ship before making sure everyone was safe. They said crew members prevented them from wearing lifejackets and did not get them into lifeboats.”

Most remarkably the ship did not ask for help. And it was several hours after it disappeared from radar screens before the rescue operation started. By most accounts the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 sank no later than 2 a.m., five hours before the government was notified of any trouble, six hours before Cairo learned it likely had sunk. Other reports say the ship sank at 1 a.m., which would have made the delay in notification at least seven hours. "What really happened," Awad said, "was that the port authority was first informed at 7 a.m. by the ship's owners that they had lost contact with the ferry. Forty-five minutes later, the company told port officials the ship may have sunk".



The BBC has provided a summary of the Egyptian press reaction.





Feb 2006

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