The ferry, called Al Salam 98, was scheduled to arrive at the Egyptian port of Safaga at 2 a.m. Friday after departing from Duba, Saudi Arabia. It lost contact with the shore around 10 p.m. Thursday and is believed to have sunk half way across the Red Sea.
According to Egyptian officials, search and rescue teams recovered 314 survivors and retrieved at least 185 bodies from the water. Hundreds remained missing.
Plane and boat rescue operations continued as darkness fell but hopes diminished of finding more people alive.
Weather may have been a factor in the disaster. There were high winds and a sandstorm overnight on Saudi Arabia’s west coast, according to the Associated Press.
Most of the passengers were Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia but included some Egyptians on their way home from the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Adel Shukri, the head of administration at the Cairo headquarters of el-Salam Maritime Navigation, said coastal stations did not receive an SOS message from the Al Salam but Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported that another ship, the Saint Catherine, traveling in the same direction received a distress message from the ship’s captain saying his ship was in danger of sinking. The agency did not say how the Saint Catherine reacted.
An official at el-Salam Maritime Transport Company that owns the Al Salam said it could take hours to investigate what went wrong. No officials said there was any indication that the ferry sunk as a result of an attack.
Egyptian Transport Minister Mohamed Lutfi Mansour told MENA the armed forces had deployed four rescue vessels. Egyptian authorities declined an offer of help from the British warship the HMS Bulwark.
A sister ship of the sunken ferry, the Al Salam 95, sank in the Red Sea in October after a collision with a Cypriot commercial vessel. All passengers were rescued.
The Al Salam 98 received a safety management certificate from an Italian organization in October 2005 that covered safety drills and other on-board procedures.