Fire on board a ship throws up a unique set of problems. Water is usually the most convenient and effective way of tackling a blaze on dry land, but at sea the water must be removed from a ship almost as quickly as it is used to fight the fire. A fine balancing act is required. On the one hand the blaze must be stopped from reaching any fuel on board the vessel and on the other it must be ascertained that the boat doesn’t shift its center of gravity via a process known as the ‘free surface effect’.
On an early February evening, the Italian built al-Salam Boccaccio 98 set sail from Duba in Saudi Arabia. Its passengers were largely migrant workers and pilgrims returning home to Egypt. The Boccaccio 98 was a boat that had seen much modification and the addition of extra passenger decks had made it top-heavy. Conditions in the Red Sea were rough and deteriorating rapidly, but this was nothing out of the ordinary for this vast body of water.
Just over half way into the nine-hour voyage, a fire started in or close to the engine room. Swift action was required to contain it, but the crew lacked adequate training in how to deal with the situation.
As more and more water was used to tackle the blaze, the ship began to list to one side. Battered by waves, it sank in about seven minutes, putting the lives of all 1,400 on board in extreme danger. Rescue efforts were tardy to say the least and did not get under way until seven hours after the boat sank. Around 400 survivors were left to fend for themselves in lifeboats before help arrived.
When was the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 Fire: February 3 2006
Where was the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 Fire: in the Red Sea, between Egypt and Saudi Arabia
What was the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 Fire death toll: Around 1,000 died.
You should know: An initial enquiry into the sinking was a whitewash. The owner of the shipping company, Mamdouh Ismail, was also a member of Egypt’s Upper House and the report’s findings stank of corruption. Relatives of the dead mounted a successful campaign to have the case re-opened and in 2009 the initial enquiry was overturned, resulting in a seven-year jail sentence for Mamdouh Ismail and punishment for other company officials.