A rented Israeli boat capsized in rough seas off Haifa early Saturday while ferrying about U.S. 100 sailors back from shore leave to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. At least three seamen died and about 25 others were reported missing, officials said.
At least 33 sailors were taken to Israeli hospitals for treatment, an Israeli doctor said. Police gunboats, helicopters and rescue vessels, which plucked another 42 seamen from the water and took them on to the Saratoga, continued scouring Haifa Bay before dawn.An estimated 1,650 American servicemen from the Saratoga and at least three escort ships disembarked at Haifa on Friday for Christmas leave, a U.S. spokesman said.
The Saratoga, part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet based in Italy, is stationed in the eastern Mediterranean as a battle group included in the multinational force opposing Iraq. The carrier has a crew of about 6,200.
According to sailors at the scene and a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity, the boat was not a U.S. naval vessel as originally reported by authorities but was a privately rented Israeli launch.
"It was overloaded at the rear and because of the high seas, water started coming over the stern," said one young sailor, who spoke on condition he not be identified. "Once it started coming over, it capsized very quickly."
Three sailors died in the incident, said Sara Schnaiderman, spokeswoman for Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross that was helping evauate the victims. U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
Kip Burke, commander, Sixth Fleet Staff, based in Gaeta, Italy, said earlier that there were two known fatalities among an estimated 100 on the boat. He said an investigation had begun into the accident but he was uncertain how far off shore the boat was when the 1:30 a.m. incident occurred.
"There is a lot of confusion," Burke said. "The biggest problem is counting heads."
Dr. Zvi Ben-Yishai of Rambam Hospital in Haifa in northern Israel said the hospital had received the body of one unidentified sailor, that two others had swallowed water but should survive, and that a third had hypothermia from exposure in the waters.
Survivors at the hospital had removed their soaked clothing - many of them wore Israeli army uniforms to warm themselves - and all had their feet enclosed in blue plastic bags. Some still were shivering hours later, drinking hot soup from plastic bowls.
The Saratoga is accompanied by the destroyer Sampson, cruiser South Carolina and combat storage ship Sirius, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Don Cofman in Tel Aviv. He said the sailors in the accident were all apparently from the Saratoga.
The port of Haifa was declared a closed military zone and flares were seen illuminating the entire bay area.