Families of the sunken Egyptian ferry
have swarmed the seaport at Safaga, Egypt - the ship's destination - on Saturday, demanding news of their loved ones' fates.
About 400 survivors have been rescued from the wreck, and 200 more passengers' bodies have been retrieved, Egypt's Minister of Transport Mohammed Lutfy Mansour said Friday night. Rescuers continued their search for the remaining 800 passengers on Saturday; however, they believed that there remained virtually no hope of locating additional survivors.
An investigation revealed that a fire erupted on board the ship prior to the disaster. However, Mansour denied that the fire was the cause of the sinking.
Survivors claimed that the crew prevented them from wearing life jackets in order to avoid panic among the passengers. Even after the fire broke out, the ship reportedly continued sailing for an additional two hours, even though it had already begun tilting. The survivors related that the crew claimed the fire was under control, yet abandoned the ship in rescue boats after the fire and smoke spread, Israel Radio reported.
Egypt has thus far declined offers of search and rescue assistance from the United States, Britain, and Israel.
The Salaam 98 sank 40 miles off the Egyptian port of Hurghada, head of the Egyptian Maritime Authority, Mahfouz Taha Marzouk, said Friday.
Four Egyptian frigates have sailed to rescue survivors, Mansour told CNN shortly before the sinking of the ship was announced.
"The Coast Guard is doing everything in its power to try to rescue these people," Mansour said. Asked about the safety of the ship, Mansour said: "It met safety requirements. The number of passengers on board is less than the maximum number of people."
However, Sky News reported that the number of passengers, 1415, exceeded by some 20 percent the maximum number allowed on board.
The ship disappeared from radar screens shortly after sailing from the western Saudi port of Dubah at 7 p.m. local time on Thursday night, the maritime officials in Suez said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press. The ship was due to have arrived at Egypt's port of Safaga at 3 a.m. local time.
Dubah and Safaga lie virtually opposite each other, about 120 miles apart, at the northern end of the Red Sea.
The ship is owned by the Egyptian firm El-Salaam Maritime Transport Co., the official added. Some of the passengers are believed to be pilgrims returning from the annual hajj to Mecca, which ended last month.
The company's owner, Mamdouh Ismail, said the ship is more than 25 years old and registered in Panama. He spoke before the sinking was announced and refused to comment further.