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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK
Bahrain boat tragedy 'waiting to happen'
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Bahrain

Bahraini police by the wreckage of the capsized boat
The boat capsized less than a mile from the shore
The Bahraini authorities have suspended all tour operations, four days after the boat disaster that claimed 58 lives.

A spokesman for the interior ministry said each boat would now have to be re-inspected by the coastguard before they could resume tours.

The Dubai government has also suspended tours while it carries out a complete review of safety procedures.

The Bahrain Coastguard claim the boat that capsized last Thursday, the al-Dana, did not have a licence to operate as a tour boat, only as a floating restaurant.

However, the boat's owners insist it was properly registered. They showed a copy of the certificate to the press.

It has emerged that the boat had only been operating tours for under three weeks when the accident happened. It had been subject to major modifications, with three high decks added on to relatively small fibreglass hull.

Members of the media, and tour operators, were taken on a special cruise to launch the new service on 9 March.

Overcrowded?

Bahrain Tribune reporter Ivor Vaz said the boat appeared fairly crowded even with only 50 people on board. He said he was amazed when he heard nearly three times as many had been on the boat the night of the disaster.

"First when I read it, I couldn't believe it was the dhow. I thought it was a big ferry or something.

"I thought no, no way, there must be some error. I don't think it could accommodate that much, it was just too much."

During the press cruise, Mr Vaz said the management told him the ship had space for 150 people - but there were already concerns about safety.

"They would ask us to shift sides from one side to the other, just because they couldn't keep balance," he explained.

As the investigation into the disaster continues, it is clear all sides are trying to shift the blame.

The Bahraini coastguard claim they never even saw the boat go to sea, so were never alerted to the fact that it was not registered.

However, the boat's moorings, at the Marina club in Bahrain, are within sight of the coastguard headquarters.

There are still publicity leaflets available there that say the boat cruises three times a day, and is available for charters.

A receptionist there told us that while the boat was moored as a floating restaurant, the captain would take it to sea if there was a party of 10 or more.

Other boat owners say they used to see it sail regularly. At the time of the launch, the Bahraini Tribune said the boat had a full schedule of bookings.

A member of the Bahrain House of Deputies, Mohammed Khalid, said the coastguard should have prevented the boat operating.

"The coastguard should stop ships and boats sailing if they are a threat to lives but they failed," he said.

"If the coastguards couldn't spot a huge tourist boat overloaded with passengers, then how can they prevent drug-trafficking usually carried out through small boats and in deserted areas of the sea."

If the boat was registered - as the owners claim - then there are still many questions. Even from its photograph, the al-Dana looks unsafe, with the newly added decks towering over the small fibreglass hull.

There is another Arab dhow moored nearby, this time a real one that is made of wood and appears much more stable. But the wooden dhow has recently had its capacity reduced from just 50 passengers to 30.

'Obeying orders'

Then there are the questions about the construction company that organised the trip, the firm Nass, Murray and Roberts.

Bahrain boat survivor Simon Hill
You just do what you have to in those situations, you just pull people out
Survivor Simon Hill

At a news conference on Saturday, a manager from the firm, Simon Hill, who survived the tragedy, gave his side of the story.

He admitted there were concerns about safety even before the boat set off.

Sixteen people decided not to make the trip because of the tendency of the al-Dana to rock violently from side to side.

Mr Hill said he and others had approached the captain and told him not to set sail if the captain was not happy about safety. The boat did set sail.

But Mr Hill could not say what the captain's answer was. And when Mr Hill was pressed about whose decision it was to go to sea, the news conference was hastily brought to a close.

For the moment it is just the boat's captain, Tandel Rejendra Kumar Ramjibhai, and his assistant, Thaku Parampil Roopesh, who are being held by the police.

The authorities have already said the captain did not hold the proper qualifications. Both men are in custody and unavailable for interview.

However, a friend of the captain's assistant did reach him shortly after the tragedy and quoted him as saying: "Anyone, be it the owner of the dhow or the guest who hires the dhow - most of them rich and influential - can foresee the consequence of overloading.

"We as workers have no liberty to express our feelings. We are just supposed to be obeying their orders only."

Whether the blame should be spread wider than just the captain and his assistant is the big question facing the official inquiry set up by the Bahraini government.

At the moment the coastguard, the owners of the boat, and those that chartered it are each working hard to deny they are responsible for what looks like a tragedy that was waiting to happen.

Graphic based on latest information available




SEE ALSO:
Bahrain suspends all boat cruises
03 Apr 06 |  Middle East
Bahrain boat 'was not licensed'
02 Apr 06 |  Middle East
Tributes to British Bahrain dead
02 Apr 06 |  Middle East
Captain held after Bahrain deaths
01 Apr 06 |  Middle East
Many die in Bahrain boat disaster
31 Mar 06 |  Middle East
Shipping disasters timeline
03 Feb 06 |  Middle East
Country profile: Bahrain
21 Jan 06 |  Country profiles



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