Desperate Scramble Preceded Sinking of Ferry

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Survivors arrive at the Egyptian port of Safaga on Saturday. i

Survivors arrive at the Egyptian port of Safaga on Saturday. Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
Survivors arrive at the Egyptian port of Safaga on Saturday.

Survivors arrive at the Egyptian port of Safaga on Saturday.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Survivors of a Red Sea ferry disaster question the actions of the ship's crew after fire broke out in transit from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. More than 300 people were rescued. Hundreds are missing. Lindsay Wise of Time magazine tells Scott Simon what she has learned.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Search and recovery crews are still scouring the Red Sea in hopes of finding more survivors of yesterday's ferry disaster. An Egyptian ferry carrying more than a thousand people, many oil workers among them, sank while in route from Duba, Saudi Arabia, to the port of Safaga in Egypt. Lindsay Wise is covering this story for Time magazine. She's in Hurghada, Egypt, where survivors are being taken for treatment. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. LINDSAY WISE (Reporter, Time magazine): Thank you for having me

SIMON: And what are some of the numbers that you've been able to find out today?

Ms. WISE: Well, the numbers here have been all over the place, but the latest ones that I've heard is over 300 who have been saved. And then there is, you know, many more who are still missing. And numbers, I think we're going to have to wait in the coming days to see just exactly how this falls out. The Egyptiangovernment and security here is often very tight-lipped about these things, and you find that they can fluctuate quite a bit. But I know that at the hospital in Hurghada when I was there, until about 6:30 this morning Egyptian time, there were about136, I was told by the doctors, being treated there for minor injuries and exhaustion.

SIMON: You've been at the hospital with survivors and their families. What are some of the stories that they have told you about what it was like to be on that ferry, and particularly, say, a scramble for lifeboats and life vests?

Ms. WISE: Well, it really sounds like a horrific experience. Many of them spoke about realizing that there was something wrong first when they woke up in the middle of the night and smelled smoke. After that, it seems that there was a lot of confusion. The crew, a lot of people have complained, did not act very professionally. There was a lot of disorganization. And many people ran, you know, both inside the boat to escape the fire and got suffocated by smoke and ran back upstairs.

And on the deck the boat started to tilt, apparently to one side, so many of the passengers went to the other side to try and keep the boat level. And one of the things that many of these survivors have complained bitterly about is the fact that the crew kept, apparently kept the boat going towards Egypt for over an hour, possibly several hours, after the fire first broke out, trying to put it out, and when they finally failed and one of the final engines failed and the boat flipped over, people were jumping off the side of the boat and, you know, swam for lifeboats. Apparently there weren't enough lifeboats, and some of these small lifeboats were packed with as many as 50 people.

SIMON: There were differing accounts as to whether or not the ship sent out a distress call. Was that any clearer today?

Ms. WISE: Well, I happened to hear on Egyptian television that one survivor was claiming that they'd been trying to send out distress calls, but no one had answered them. I think this is still a question that's very much a mystery, actually, and we'll have to see in the coming days how the investigation plays out. I know that one thing that was really stressed for me, again, speaking to the survivors, was the fact that they felt that if the boat had been turned around, they were only an hour and half, apparently, outside of Saudi Arabia when the fire began, and if it had been turned around at that point instead of going on, thatmany of them felt that they would have survived, more people would have survived.

SIMON: And what do you know about reports that Egypt refused offers from the British and U.S. Navy that had assets in the area to help out in the rescue in the first few hours?

Ms. WISE: I had heard that, that they had offered to do that and that they had been turned down, but again, I haven't been able to independently confirm that report.

SIMON: Okay. And president Mubarak is offering $5,200 to each of the survivors?

Ms. WISE: Yes, he's been, actually, in Hurghada here visiting survivors today, and he is calling for a quick investigation into the causes of the incident. This is, unfortunately, not the first time that Egypt has experienced this kind of a ferry disaster. There are many ferries that go between Saudi Arabia and Egypt carrying workers who are sending their salaries home to Egypt but living abroad in the Gulf. So many of these people, actually, on the boat were day laborers and were coming home to their families, some of them after as long as five or ten years.

SIMON: Reporter Lindsay Wise for Time magazine speaking with us from Hurghada, Egypt. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. WISE: Thank you.

SIMON: And it's 18 minutes past the hours.

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