JERUSALEM, DEC. 22 (SATURDAY) -- At least two U.S. servicemen drowned and more than a dozen others were missing today after a boat carrying about 100 sailors from the Israeli port of Haifa to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga broke up and sank early this morning, officials said.
Israeli military and police officers rushed out in boats and helicopters to pull sailors from the waters in the predawn darkness, according to officials who described the rescue effort as massive and frantic. Reports said rescuers fired flares skyward to illuminate the area where the boat sank.
By 6 a.m. local time (11 p.m. Friday EDT), 83 sailors had been rescued, two were confirmed dead and an estimated 15 were still missing, a Navy spokesman in Washington said. A spokeswoman for the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross said a third sailor had died, the Associated Press reported, but that could not be confirmed.
Helicopters flew injured men to two hospitals in Haifa, and about 10 were hospitalized. More than 20 others were treated and released, according to hospital officials.
The searches continued through the night and after dawn Israeli time. "Anybody who can move is out there looking for people in the water," said an official.
The boat that sank was an Israeli commercial launch that was ferrying sailors from Haifa to the Saratoga, sources said. They said the boat split in half but it was not immediately clear why. The Navy said in Washington the craft was traveling in waves three to four feet high.
"It was overloaded at the rear and because of the high seas, water started coming over the stern," one sailor, who spoke on condition he not be identified, told the Associated Press in Haifa. "Once it started coming over, it capsized very quickly."
One Israeli official said initial reports suggested the ferry may have struck a platform alongside one of the ships in the Saratoga's battle group. He said the incident was still being investigated by Israeli and U.S. authorities.
A U.S. Navy statement issued in Jerusalem said the accident occurred when the ferry was about 200 yards from the Saratoga.
The incident occurred during a pre-Christmas visit to Haifa by the Saratoga, to allow its personnel routine shore leave. Haifa is a regular port of call for the ships of the U.S. 6th Fleet, to which the Saratoga is assigned.
The carrier has been sent to the Eastern Mediteranean from its base at Mayport Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., as part of the U.S. military deployment in the Middle East to oppose Iraq, U.S. officials said.
The Saratoga was accompanied by a destroyer, a cruiser and a supply ship, officials said. All of the sailors involved in the accident were believed to be from the Saratoga.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Don Cofman said the sailors aboard the launch were returning to the Saratoga from their shore leave in Haifa. The aircraft carrier arrived off Haifa Friday morning, he said. Cofman said the Navy regularly hires Israeli commercial craft to ferry sailors to shore, in addition to using its own boats. Vessels such as the Saratoga often use launches because they are too large to enter and dock at many ports, such as the one at Haifa.
Twenty-seven sailors were brought to Ramban Hospital in Haifa early this morning, and others were arriving by helicopter, according to deputy director Zvi Ben Yishai. He said 19 sailors had been treated and released and eight had been hospitalized in satisfactory condition.
Ben Yishai said the hospitalized sailors were suffering from "various degrees of drowning symptoms" including water inhalation and hypothermia from exposure.
At Carmel Hospital in Haifa, officials said none of the 10 U.S. sailors there was in serious condition.
Despite a general effort to play down military ties between the United States and Israel since the Persian Gulf crisis began in August, U.S. ships have continued to call at Haifa, officials said. Staff writer Molly Moore contributed to this report from Washington.