CAIRO: If there is one thing critics say was revealed following last week’s tragic Red Sea ferry accident that left as many as 1,000 people dead, it is the lack of a concrete emergency plans from the government as well as the Al-Salam Company.
One week later, conflicting remarks and accusations between the government, the ferry company, rescue crews and victims continue to lash back and forth as this disaster adds to the weight growing on the shoulders of the Egyptian government.
It’s fair to say that Egyptian authorities have learned their lesson, albeit the hard way.
Saudi Arabian officials this week deemed another ferry unsafe, preventing it from leaving port. Following the October 2004 bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Taba, Egyptian security officials dramatically boosted hotel security across Egypt, and later reinforced security with the bombing of the Ghazala Hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh. Together, more than 100 died in less than a year in hotel bombings in Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh.
Immediately after the 35-year old Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 sank, another ferry from the same company, dubbed St. Catherine, was aware that the ferry had sunk and allegedly tried to make radio contact. In an interview with Al-Ahram newspaper this week, the captain of St. Catherine, Salah Jum ah, defended his decision not return for the survivors himself.
I took the decision not to go back in order to protect the lives of the 1,800 passengers with me on the St Catherine, fearing that the ship would overturn when I turned around, especially given that the weather conditions were bad and the height of the waves were more than you can imagine, he told the paper.
“The bottom line is this is a lack of initiative and failure of the system, demands Sherif Samy, chairman of Skill Link. “Nobody is really saying, ‘why did it sink?’ It happens. Is there a manual to say people did not follow emergency instructions on the boat or after? Even people from the company do not deny that they were late in responding.
Companies in Egypt lack protocol in the event of an emergency. Emergency response plans for employees of a given company provide instructions and basic training in the event of a crisis. Safety is usually the primary purpose of any such response plans. An added purpose of emergency protocol is restoring business operations and order. Preservation of life, environmental stability and the protection of business assets is part of that training.
“In my first job in the [United] States, they gave me a manual on my first day, Samy recalls. “It said, ‘What if you’re locked in the office?’ ‘What if you’re sick on the weekend and need emergency care?’ ‘What if you receive a bomb threat while you’re in the office?’ I thought it’s overkill but it proves you have to think of everything and have a protocol. Here, there isn’t a book or a manual saying if you lose contact for more than 90 minutes, you should have a search and rescue mission.
Immediately following the accident, Arab networks immediately posted a number from the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Cairo set exclusively for those relatives seeking information on their loved ones. Some 48 hours following the accident, nothing on Al-Salaam Company’s Web site indicated there had been an accident. Today, the website posts a list of passengers, including a separate list of survivors, plus information about Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 and condolences on behalf of the company.
“When the TWA plane fell, first thing is you had a hotline on the website of the company and on TV on the screen, says Samy. “There are even psychologists who go to comfort the families suffering from trauma. There should be a book, you don’t invent it … for train, plane or boat. It’s a checklist that people would follow in an emergency. It seems funny, for lack of a better word, but later on we discover that it is very useful.