21 U.S. Sailors Reported Dead After Launch Capsizes off Haifa

Memorial services were held Sunday for 21 American soldiers who drowned in Haifa Bay shortly after midnight Friday, when a private Israeli launch hired to ferry sailors to the U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga capsized in rough waters and sank, only yards from the ship.

The fatality count was raised from 20 during the services with the announcement that a seaman who had been reported unaccounted for had been aboard the ill-fated launch. Although presumed drowned, his body had not yet been recovered.

Weeping sailors tossed a wreath into the water as helicopters overhead continued to search for bodies.

The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Gen. Dan Shomron, and other Israeli generals attended the ceremony and expressed their condolences in private conversations.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir sent regrets about the accident to President Bush, Israel Television reported.

There were 84 survivors among the 102 sailors on the launch, of whom 50 were hospitalized in Haifa hospitals. Defense Minister Moshe Arens visited the injured, two of whom were still hospitalized on Sunday.

The final death toll could not be determined until an accounting was made of 1,924 sailors reported to have been on shore leave, U.S. officials said.

U.S. Embassy personnel thanked the Israeli authorities for their speedy assistance and rescue efforts.

The survivors were plucked from the water by U.S. and Israeli helicopters and police boats. Floodlights from helicopters and harbor craft illuminated the black waters as the search for bodies and survivors continued through the night.

NO EVIDENCE OF SABOTAGE

The Saratoga, which has been stationed in the Red Sea off the Saudi Arabian coast in connection with Operation Desert Shield, docked in Haifa on Friday with three escort vessels for Christmas leave.

It was the first leave for the crew of the Saratoga since it left its home port of Jacksonville, Fla., on Aug. 7.

The 1,200-foot carrier has a complement of 4,500 crew members, of whom 1,900 were on shore leave Friday.

The vessel is too long, too broad and too deep to enter Haifa harbor, much less dock alongside. It lay at anchor 1.2 miles offshore in Haifa Bay.

Investigations into the disaster are being conducted by the U.S. Sixth Fleet, of which the Saratoga is a member vessel, the shipping division of Israel’s Transport Ministry and the Haifa harbor police. They are trying to find out why the Israeli launch, named Ein Tuvia, capsized and sank within seconds when it was about 100 feet from the floating landing stage alongside the carrier.

Sabotage was ruled out as a cause of the accident, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.

A preliminary inquiry indicated that the launch might have lost stability when most of the sailors jammed the disembarkation are on the starboard quarter.

The seas were running high at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning and the small vessel apparently was swamped by a wave, heeled sharply to starboard and could not recover.

The vessel’s captain, Yosef Shohat, who was rescued along with its sole crewman, Noah Or, said the bay was rough Friday night, which is why he reduced his boat’s normal carrying capacity of 131 to 102.

SOLDIERS SAID TO HAVE BEEN UNRULY

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv denied local reports that many of the sailors were drunk after making the rounds of Haifa bars and that some were so unruly they were brought to the launch handcuffed by the Navy shore patrol.

Embassy officials said seamen are never handcuffed aboard small boats but admitted one man was handcuffed after his rescue because of his wild conduct.

On Saturday, U.S. Navy divers inspected the sunken launch on the floor of the bay. The craft is lying on its side about 100 feet below the surface. Several bodies were extricated from the cabin, where they were trapped.

The wreck will be raised and the hull inspected for structural faults.

The ferry was reported to be seaworthy. It passed its last inspection and was licensed to operate in worse conditions than those encountered Friday night. The vessel was due for another inspection in three months.

The vessel is owned by the Ogen Co., a subsidiary of Solel Boneh, an industrial conglomerate owned by Histadrut, Israel’s labor federation.

No explanation was offered as to why the U.S. Navy used a private launch to ferry its personnel back to the Saratoga instead of the ship’s own boats.

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