CAIRO: Indignation is growing over the circumstances under which a passenger ship sank in the Red Sea last week.
Critics of the government have questioned the ship’s seaworthiness, the slow pace of rescue efforts and the lack of information provided to victims’ families.
The Al-Salam Bocaccio 89 was carrying 1,414 passengers, mostly Egyptian workers, from the Saudi town of Dubah to the port of Safaga in Egypt when it sank at around midnight on Feb. 3. So far, at least 448 survivors have been rescued and 190 bodies recovered.
Relatives of the hundreds of passengers still unaccounted for continue to wait in Safaga, some 500 km southeast of the capital, Cairo, for information.
On Feb. 4, doctors read out survivors’ names, but no official lists were distributed. Angry relatives then clashed with security forces, throwing rocks at the lines of police barring their way to the port area and hospital.
Bahaeddin Hassan, a member of the National Human Rights Council (NHRC), said the behavior of security forces was part of a larger pattern of disrespect regarding citizens’ rights.
“The behavior of security forces – harassing people, ignoring human feelings, ignoring the human right to have basic information about their relatives – is not a surprise, said Hassan.
“[This is] a common response and a mentality which doesn’t respect the basic rights of people.
According to government officials, the ship sank after a fire broke out on board. The crew reportedly tried to put the fire out rather than turn back to the point of origin.
When the ship sank, none of its 10 lifeboats and only a few of its smaller life rafts had been deployed.
There are conflicting reports as to whether the ship sent out a distress signal. The first survivors, however, were not picked up until the afternoon of 3 February.
British and US offers of assistance were initially turned down, but later accepted.
Hafez Abu Saeeda, secretary general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), said the organisation was sending a team to Safaga on Sunday to investigate the incident.
“The safety of the ship leaves many question marks, said Abu Saeeda. “We believe there were mistakes committed by the Ministry of Transportation in checking the ship.
The government, Abu Saeeda added, did not “follow the necessary procedures to keep the ship safe .
The owner of the vessel, Al-Salam Maritime, is a major passenger and cargo company. In 1991, one of its ships sank in the Red Sea killing nearly 500 people. Earlier this year, two passengers died and 40 were injured when another Al-Salam ship sank following a collision.
Some government officials have suggested the ship may not have been seaworthy, but the owner of Al Salam Maritime insists Bocaccio 89 passed a recent inspection.
The question “is whether the security tests were done properly, without corruption , said Hesham Qassem, publisher of independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm.
“In practically every disaster we’ve had [in the last decade], there’s always an element of negligence and lack of application of safety standards.
“What’s more alarming is how the authorities behave with catastrophes, said the NHRC’s Hassan. “This isn’t the only one, and no serious response had taken place with regard to previous transportation disasters.
“There is no responsibility, no accountability, he added.
Hassan listed several transport-related disasters in recent years in which poor maintenance, un-enforced safety standards and a slow, disorganised response were blamed for high casualties.
Critics note that low-income travellers are often the victims of such accidents.
On Sunday, opposition and independent papers expressed outrage. Independent weekly Al-Usbua, for example, asked in a headline: “The Voyage of Death: Who’s Responsible?
Online, local blogger Mustafa Hussein expressed a common sentiment. “For the government, those lives are of no value whatsoever, he wrote.
“We have been conditioned to this, he added. “We find it normal and acceptable for the government to do a lousy job in everything.
Cairo has said it would launch an investigation into the incident.
We’ve done everything we can do, recently appointed Transportation Minister Muhammad Mansour said on state television.
President Hosni Mubarak visited survivors in hospital on 4 February, announcing that each would receive approximately US $2,600 and that families of each victim would receive double that amount. IRIN