Accident details: At a glance

  • Type of accident: Capsizing and sinking
  • Vessel(s) involved: MV Al-Salam Boccaccio 98 (ferry)
  • Date: 3 February 2006
  • Place: Red Sea
  • Fatalities: 1,031
  • Pollution: No
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The incident

In the afternoon hours of 2 February 2006, the Panamanian-flagged RO-RO ferry ‘Al Salam Boccaccio 98’ was on a routine journey from Port of Duba, Saudi Arabia, to Safaga, Egypt, carrying a total of 1,418 persons onboard – including 1,321 passengers and 97 crew members-, a full load of cars and some trucks.

While underway in the Red Sea approximately 2 and a half hours after departure, the fire-alarm sounded, and crew members started fighting the fire with different means onboard.

As a result of the fire mitigation, the scuppers were blocked, and the accumulation of a large amount of water, coupled with the weather conditions, finally caused an excessive list of the vessel to starboard.

Attempting to correct the list, the master began ordering ballast water operations leading to a further increase of the list of the vessel.

As a result of the list, sea water ingressed into the vessel. Consequently, the vessel sank approximately 57 miles from its port of destination, the Egyptian Port of Safaga, and 41 nm from her port of departure, the Saudi Arabian Port of Duba.

 

Fatalities

From the 1,418 persons onboard, the 1,031 died as a result of the accident. The 710 of them are missing and presumed dead.

Only 387 persons, including 24 crew, were rescued.

Media at the time reported that "dozens" of bodies were floating in the Red Sea.

 

Probable causes

Fire was the immediate factor but not the root cause leading to the tragedy. A preliminary investigation report by Panama Maritime Authority says the fire apparently began in the car-deck; however, the origin of the fire could not be properly located.

During the course of the investigation, it was determined that the fire may have started in one of the following locations: a passenger’s luggage loaded at the Port of Duba, or in a fuel tank of one of the loaded vehicles.

Notably, water utilized during the fire-fighting efforts caused a progressive loss of stability on the vessel, leading to an excessive list of the vessel, as part of a phenomenon called free surface effect.

As a result of the fire-fighting operations, the water that was delivered onboard created a critical increase in the level of water on the cardeck, which was impossible to discharge in a timely manner by the crew, thus generating an unsafe and unstable list condition.

Additionally, as a result of the fire-fighting operation, the large volume of water delivered may have also contributed to the accumulation of debris, trash, and residue around the car-deck, and perhaps clogging the scuppers, and thus impeding the water from being freely discharged overboard.

Survivors claimed that "the firefighters essentially sank the ship when sea water they used to battle the fire collected in the hull because drainage pumps were not working."

Post-accident investigations also focused significantly on poor emergency procedures combined with inadequate leadership by the company and the Captain onboard the ferry. The Panama investigation highlights as a key cause “the failure of the master to notify, in a timely manner, the company, the vessels in the vicinity, or the authorities of the ongoing situation and to request help or assistance”. Specifically:

  • When the Captain asked permission to return to port, the ship’s owners ordered him to continue, despite knowing that there had been a fire.
  • No orders of evacuation were given to the crew or the passengers at any time, as per established procedures.
  • The master did not accept recommendations of his officers to contact vessels in the vicinity or the authorities, ignoring also recommendations to abandon ship.

 The master also refused to be seen by other vessels in the vicinity, and instead ordered the lights on his vessel to be turned off.

The report further notes that unclear instructions given to conduct the ballast operation may have actually generated the increase on the list of up to 25 degrees to starboard.

Contributing to the capsizing were the weather conditions present at the time, with current and wind of 7 to 8 on the Beaufort Scale, while contributing to the loss of life was also the significant delay by authorities in starting search and rescue operations.

 

Liability

The owner company was generally blamed for operating a ferry with serious defects. In addition, the recovered VDR proved that the ferry's owner knew there had been a fire onboard but gave orders to continue on, instead of returning to port as the captain had requested.

In July 2008, an Egyptian court acquitted of charges the owner of Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, his son and two others. However, in March 2009 the initial acquittal was overturned, and the owner was sentenced to seven years in prison. Two other employees of the company were sentenced to three years in prison each.

 

Lessons learned

It becomes clear that this was another maritime tragedy resulted from a mix of unlucky events. It is extremely rare that a casualty of this magnitude and this death toll results from one single factor.

However, a root cause seen in many other accidents can be traced in this one too: The lack of preparedness for the unexpected and the human factor complexities during emergency situations became evident just after the fire broke out.

As emergency response procedures were not properly followed by the crew, as established in the Safety Management Manual of the vessel, this accident highlighted the importance for masters, watch standing officers, and crew members, to immediately report any emergency to the company, the authorities, and if practicable, to ships in the vicinity.

It is a matter of concern whether a great deal of the paperwork required by the ISM Code is being followed just as a matter routine compliance on many of the ships, without actually putting these procedures into practice onboard,

…the official report reads.

The importance of crew being familiar with procedures was another key point to consider. With the magnitude of rough weather the vessel experienced that day, it would only take two or three inches (5-8cm) of water on the deck to set off a Free Surface Effect.

After the accident, the Panama Maritime Authority also recommended that the stowage of luggage or cargo in opentype trailers in the car-decks of RO-RO passenger ships be avoided, and serious consideration given to the stowage of these items in enclosed areas designated for this purpose, where detection and fire-fighting measures may be implemented.

 

Did you know?

The Free Surface Effect is a phenomenon whereby a small amount of water inside the vessel starts slopping from side to side, making the ship rock. As the water moves it gathers momentum, making the ship more unstable and can shift cargo and capsize the ship quickly.

Other ferry disasters

  • MS Herald of Free Enterprise killed 193 passengers.
  • Salem Express (1991) killed 464 Egyptians
  • The MS Estonia (1994) claimed 852 lives.
  • The MV Le Joola (2002) capsized off Gambia killing at least 1,863 people.
  • Pride of al Salam 95 (2005) killed two people.

 

Explore more in the preliminary report by Panama Maritime Authority: