IT SANK LIKE A STONE; 1300 feared dead as ferry goes down in Red Sea storm.
THEY were only a few hours from home.
But of the army of poor workers crammed aboard the doomed ferry Al-Salam Boccaccio 98, precious few will see their families again.
Around 1300 people died as they slept when the 12,800-ton Egyptian ship vanished from radar screens and sank like a stone into the Red Sea.
Few passengers had time to escape. Less than 200 made it into lifeboats.
But some survivors were plucked from the sea after treading water for at least TEN HOURS.
Most of those lost were Egyptians heading home from Saudi Arabia after working in low-paid jobs in the oil-rich kingdom. Some had stayed on in Saudi to work after making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
As investigations into the cause of the disaster began, experts focused on the safety standards of the ship.
It was an old-fashioned roll-on, roll-off ferry similar in design to the Herald Of Free Enterprise, which sank off Zeebrugge in 1987 with the loss of 187 lives.
Some analysts asked whether, like the Herald, the al-Salam was sunk by water flooding its car deck.
Others pointed to alterations to the 36-year-old ship which may have affected its stability. Four extra decks were added to its superstructure to enable it to take more passengers.
Shipping expert David Osler, of Lloyds List, said yesterday: "There is a big question mark over the stability of this kind of ship.
"It would only take a bit of water to get on board and it would be all over. The percentage of this type of ferry involved in this type of disaster is huge."
The Al-Salam's owners insisted it was safe.
But as hundreds of frantic relatives waited for news of the missing, one of them asked: "How can they put all these passengers in such an old ship that was not fit for sailing?
"Somebody should be blamed."
The Al-Salam set sail from the Saudi port of Duba at 6.30pm (4.30pm UK time) on Thursday. It had arrived from the main Saudi port of Jeddah and was heading for the Egyptian port of Safaga, 120 miles away across the northern Red Sea.
A spokesman for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak said there were around 1400 passengers and 96 crew aboard.
More than 1100 of the passengers were Egyptians, but there were also around 100 Saudis.
The weather at the start of the voyage was bad, with high winds and a raging sandstorm. Conditions got no better as the ship headed west.
Coastal stations lost contact with the Al-Salam at 8pm. And at some point between midnight and 2am, the ship disappeared from the radar.
The only distress call received was picked up by another ferry.
The Al-Salam's skipper reported that his vessel was in imminent danger of sinking. No time for the call was revealed.
A signal from one of the ship's automated distress beacons was received at RAF Kinloss in Moray at 11.58pm (1.58am Egyptian time).
The Al-Salam sank 57 miles off the Egyptian coast. The water in the area is up to 1000metres deep.
In the hours after the disaster, bad weather and darkness hampered the search for survivors.
Four Egyptian navy ships reached the scene on Friday afternoon, about 10 hours after the sinking.
Rescuers reported "dozens of bodies" floating in the water.
But by last night, 203 people had been rescued. Most had made it into lifeboats, but more than 30 were plucked directly from the shark infested waters.
A Royal Navy assault ship, HMS Bulwark, diverted from patrol and headed for the scene, but turned back again after the Egyptian authorities said its help was not needed.
Relatives waiting on shore complained bitterly that they had received no information from the authorities.
Teacher Ahmed Abdul Hamid, whose cousin was unaccounted for, said: "There is nobody to tell us what is going on. We are in a complete blackout."
The Al-Salam was owned by an Egyptian firm and registered in Panama.
It was once operated by Townsend Thoresen, who also owned the Herald Of Free Enterprise, but was built at a different yard to a different design.
The ship was based in Italy from 1970 to 1999, when it moved to the Red Sea.
One shipping expert, Frenchman Yvan Perchoc, said the Al-Salam was one of several Red Sea ferries to have been given extra decks so it could carry more passengers.
Perchoc said such ships usually sit very low in the water. He added: "One can wonder about their stability."
Modern roll-on, roll-off ferries are far safer than older ships. And unions condemned the practice of sending vessels no longer considered fit to work in Europe to poorer countries.
Andrew Linington, of the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, said: "Ships like this would not be allowed to sail in European waters. It is fundamentally wrong that they are allowed to go on beyond their sell-by date."
But a spokesman for the Saudi branch of insurance company Lloyds said the al-Salam met all safety requirements.
A sister ship of the ferry, the Al Salam 95, sank in the Red Sea last October after a collision with a cargo ship. Two passengers died in a stampede of people trying to escape.
RECORD VIEW: Page 8
DANGEROUS CHANGE? In its original form, above, the Al-Salam only had room for 500 passengers. But four extra decks were added, right, when it was moved to the Red Sea, to allow it to carry more than 1400 people' DESPERATE SEARCH: Egyptian naval vessels, above, scoured the sea for survivors, as wreckage littered the surface of the Red Sea, top