OTD: Ferry accident involving the USS Saratoga

#onthisday in 1990 an Israeli chartered liberty ferry shuttling crew members stationed aboard the USS Saratoga (CV60) capsized and sank off the coast of Haifa, Israel. 21 American sailors drowned.
The Times Union reported:

At least 19 U.S. sailors drowned early Saturday morning off the Israeli port of Haifa when a ferry carrying them back to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga from a Christmas shore leave capsized and sank.

The accident took place shortly after midnight Friday when a strong wave hit the ferry about half a mile offshore in the Mediterranean Sea. The craft, carrying 102 Saratoga crew members, sank quickly 200 yards from the aircraft carrier in rough waters 65 feet deep, a U.S. Navy spokesman said Saturday night.

U.S. officials said the complete death toll would not be known until an accounting was made of the 1,924 sailors who were on shore leave. Although the cause of the accident is still under investigation, preliminary information available Saturday night indicated that the ferry sank because it was hit by the wave just as many of its passengers were moving to one side of the vessel to prepare to board the aircraft carrier.

“All of a sudden, swoosh, tons of water started coming in and the boat started sinking,” said an unidentified U.S. sailor quoted by the Israeli armed forces radio. “Everybody started to panic. I looked out. All I could see was dark.”

U.S. Embassy officials and naval officers said 17 bodies of U.S. sailors had been recovered early Saturday morning in an extensive search operation conducted with helicopters and boats. Two more sailors’ bodies were found later in the morning, the officials said.

A memorial service is to be held aboard the Saratoga this afternoon. The officials said the identities of the dead were being withheld pending notification of their families.

In Tel Aviv, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, Don Cofman, said a Navy investigative team was on its way to Israel to determine the reasons for the accident. But the spokesman, who was interviewed by telephone, ruled out sabotage as a possible cause. Israeli television said two U.S. sailors had been seriously injured in the accident and 37 had been hospitalized with water in their lungs.

Israeli and U.S. officials said the ferry, normally used by tourists, capsized in cold and turbulent waters. The ferry, the Ein Tuvia, was operated by two Israeli crewmen, who were rescued unharmed. The vessel’s captain, Yossi Shohat, told Israeli armed forces radio that the sailors on board had been “pretty merry” on their first day ashore in over four months’ duty in the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea as part of operations in the Persian Gulf region.

Israel’s navy commander, Adm. Micha Ram, told the armed forces radio that the ferry had been well- equipped with life jackets, but he said “the boat sank very quickly – in 15 to 20 seconds, according to survivors’ reports. There was plenty of safety equipment, but they did not use it.”

The director of the Haifa Port Authority, Shaul Raziel, said the ferry had not been overloaded, and he asserted that the disaster had been caused by bad sea conditions and heavy weather.

Cofman, the embassy spokesman, said an undetermined number of sailors from the Saratoga and another ferry sailing nearby had jumped into the water to rescue their shipmates as U.S. and Israeli boats and helicopters took part in the search for survivors.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters at Camp David, Md., where President Bush was staying, that the President was upset by the accident and sent his condolences to the families of the victims.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir expressed his regrets about the accident and sent a condolence message to Bush, Israeli television said Saturday night.

In a related development, according to wire reports: Israel army radio reported that some of the sailors had been drunk and at least one of the dead victims was handcuffed, apparently after being arrested by U.S. military police for drunkenness.

However, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Alan Dooley said no one aboard the boat was in handcuffs. Meanwhile, a Pentagon spokesman said one U.S. soldier participating in Operation Desert Shield was killed and a second was injured Saturday when a truck in which they were riding overturned in Saudi Arabia.

The soldiers’ names were withheld pending notification of relatives. The two soldiers were assigned to the 51st Chemical Company, 2nd Corps, Support Command, VII Corps, the spokesman said. Their unit had been stationed in Germany before U.S.-led forces were deployed to the Persian Gulf in response to Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the spokesman said. The accident brought the total U.S. death toll in Operation Desert Shield to at least 76, the spokesman said.

——
The USS Saratoga was named for the American Victory at Saratoga. There were six US Navy ships named after the Battles of Saratoga. The USS Saratoga is an example of an effort to honor those who died or were wounded in service to their country and the causes for which they made their sacrifices. The actions in the Town of Saratoga, Battles of Saratoga, and USS Saratoga are part of a legacy that have contributed to the shared American identity and an evolving sense of patriotism.
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