CAIRO, EGYPT -- Rescue teams scoured the dark waters of the Red Sea for survivors after an Egyptian ferry carrying more than 1,400 people sank in stormy weather early yesterday. Nearly 24 hours later, just 314 survivors had been found, along with nearly 200 bodies.
The number of confirmed victims was expected to climb sharply overnight. Saudi and Egyptian ships combed the chilly waters, but the ferry had been missing for 10 hours in the cold sea by the time rescue efforts got under way. There was no way to know what caused the ferry to sink, but heavy winds and sandstorms were reported in the Red Sea area when the boat disappeared. The ferry didn't have enough lifeboats to save all of the passengers, a presidential spokesman said.
President Hosni Mubarak "called for a swift investigation into what happened, and this will happen parallel to the rescue efforts," spokesman Suleiman Awad told Egyptian state television. "This is not the first incident that happened, and we need to investigate why this happens. Is it a technical failure, a breach of safety regulation or what?"
After the slow start, rescue efforts appeared to be hampered by confusion. Egyptian authorities at first turned down British and American offers to send ships to help search for survivors. A British warship on patrol nearby had already turned toward the scene when Cairo called it off. As the hours dragged by, however, the Egyptian government reversed its decision and asked to help.
Frantic families huddled by the Egyptian port town of Safaga, where the ferry had been due to make landfall before sunrise yesterday. The boat was making the 120-mile crossing from the Saudi port of Dubah to Egypt, carrying mostly Egyptian workers who trek to the oil-rich Persian Gulf state to make a living. Many struggling Egyptians choose the water crossing on their visits home because it is cheaper than flying.
At least 2,000 friends and family members milled near the gates of the port last night, waiting in anger and confusion for news on their loved ones. Officials wandered through the crowd, reading the names of passengers. The atmosphere was chaotic and tense; riot police were deployed in case of unrest.
"We don't know anything yet," said Hassan Suleiman Youssef, a 47-year-old Arabic teacher. After seeing news of the ferry disaster on television, Youssef had driven to Safaga in hopes of hearing word of his brother-in-law, who was on his way home from guiding pilgrims in the Muslim rite of hajj.
"No one told us if he's dead or alive," said Youssef, standing near the port in his traditional robes. "We are still waiting."
The ship is believed to have sunk about 57 miles from the Egyptian port of Hurghada. A team of federal investigators was airlifted immediately to Safaga to open an investigation into the causes of the ferry's disappearance. Along with experts from the Air and Marine Ports Security, there were five forensic specialists and 20 doctors to begin identifying the bodies.
The aging boat, which was used in Europe for years before being sold to the Egyptian company, was carrying more than 1,100 Egyptians and almost 100 Saudis. There were also Syrians, Palestinians and at least one passenger each from the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Canada, Sudan and Yemen.
A spokesman for El Salam Maritime in Cairo, which owned the 35-year-old craft, said it was inspected every 48 hours in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The ship was in good repair, said fleet manager Mamdouh Oraby.
"It looks abnormal because there was no distress message," Oraby said in a telephone interview. "With the new, modern communication system, it's hard not to give any signal or message. It looks like it went down quickly."
Built to hold 2,000 people, the ferry was carrying 1,317 passengers, along with 97 crew members, when it disappeared, Oraby said. The ferry offered varying accommodations, depending on the fare paid. Passengers could buy tickets for Pullman seats, the deck or first- and second-class beds.
The ferry, called the Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, was registered in Panama. Egyptian regulations prevent any boat older than 25 years from flying the Egyptian flag, said Bassem Faisal, an operations manager in another Egyptian maritime company.
With public outrage rising, a longtime member of the ferry's staff appeared on Egyptian state television to defend the craft.
"Accidents happen. We shouldn't jump to conclusions that there was something wrong with the ship," said Dr. Emad Atriss, the former head of the ferry's medical unit. "I don't want the Egyptian people to lose confidence in the Egyptian means of transportation. Corruption or not, these are people's lives we're talking about. Corruption does not extend to taking out people's lives."
A similar ferry sinking in the same region of the Red Sea killed 470 people in 1991 after the ship struck a coral reef. It took rescuers nine hours to respond to an SOS message, and a lone ship and a single helicopter were the only crafts hunting for survivors for the first 24 hours, a report by Egypt's Ain Shams University later concluded.
The tragedy quickly brought an outpouring of sympathy from around the world.
In Washington, the White House issued a statement saying that President Bush "extends our deepest condolences for the loss of life."
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all Egyptians and citizens of other nations who suffered losses in this terrible accident," it said. "The United States stands ready to assist the Governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the process of rescue and recovery."
Megan K. Stack and Hossam Hamalawy writes for the Los Angeles Times.