HAIFA, ISRAEL, DEC. 22 -- Rescuers recovered the bodies of 19 U.S. sailors killed today in the sinking of a ferry boat shuttling crew members to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, authorities said.
The accident early this morning was the deadliest to affect U.S. forces deployed for Operation Desert Shield, and raised the number of Americans killed in the deployment to at least 73. The Saratoga was posted to the U.S. 6th Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean from its base in Mayport, Fla., following Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, and was off Haifa for shore leave.
President Bush was upset by the incident and sent his condolences to the victims' families, the White House said.
U.S. and Israeli officials said they did not yet know what caused the 57-foot, two-deck Israeli commercial ferry Tuvia to capsize and sink about 200 yards from the Saratoga. The ferry was taking about 100 servicemen back to the carrier, about a mile offshore, after leave in Haifa. Survivors said the craft was moving in choppy seas, with waves of three to four feet, when it began to take on water. It then overturned after it was hit by several large waves.
"We were going on the waves, and I just noticed one that was bigger than normal, and then we noticed another one that was bigger than normal," Seaman Michael Benjamin, 19, of San Antonio, told reporters from a bed at Ramban Hospital in Haifa. "The next thing I know, all I saw coming in was water. I was tilted forward, I heard a lot of yelling, 'She's going down!' "
Shaul Raziel, the director general of the Israeli Port Authority, said a combination of events probably caused the accident, including crowding by the sailors toward one end of the craft as it approached the Saratoga. "The seating, or movement in one direction, a sudden wave, and the disaster happened," he said on Israeli army radio.
Benjamin suffered a neck injury when he and several other sailors were struck by at least one of the boats involved in the rescue.
Thomas Abbot, the U.S. Embassy's naval attache, said a witness aboard a nearby ferry told him that the Tuvia sank almost instantly. "He turned his back, turned around again and the ferry was gone," Abbot said.
U.S. officials said there was confusion about the number of casualties and missing because some sailors from the adjacent ferry dived into the ocean in an attempt to save comrades. Several of them were later counted among the 83 rescued.
Haifa police said they had recovered 19 bodies by midday, a count confirmed by U.S. officials. An Israeli army spokesman said six of the bodies had been trapped in the wreck, about 65 feet below the surface.
Israeli officials said late today that rescue operations had ceased. U.S. and Israeli authorities said it would probably take several days, at least, to determine the causes of the accident. The Israeli Transport Ministry and the 6th Fleet launched separate investigations today, and U.S. officials said Israeli authorities plan to raise the Tuvia as early as Sunday.
Israeli officials said six Americans were hospitalized, none with life-threatening injuries. All of the 1,924 U.S. personnel on shore leave in Haifa were recalled to their ships for a head count, and U.S. Embassy spokesman Don Cofman said this evening that "a few are still not 100 percent accounted for."
The Navy did not release the names or hometowns of victims. A Virginia man, Airman Lamont Jones, 20, of Claremont, near Newport News, was hospitalized with breathing difficulties, the Associated Press reported.
Sailors described frantically trying to climb out of the ferry as it sank, with water pouring in around them. "Everybody started opening the windows. Everybody was trying to crawl out of a little window . . . five, 10 people on one window," one survivor told Israel radio. "Thank God, I got out. I looked up and all I could see was dark. Just paddling up, paddling up. I grabbed onto this guy's leg and he pulled me up."
The ferry belonged to the Israeli company Haogen, which said it had provided such service to the Navy at Haifa for about 20 years. A company official denied suggestions that the boat had been overloaded, saying it was licensed to carry 131 people.