Chief Petty Officer Lance Vickery recalls waves tumbling into the stern of the bobbing ferry headed back to the USS Saratoga and joking, "Whoa, looks like we're flooding."

Only minutes later, his words came true, turning a simple ride back from Christmas shore leave into a harrowing fight to survive.The Israeli ferry Tuvia capsized shortly after midnight Saturday, throwing more than 100 men into the cold waters of Haifa Bay. At least 19 sailors drowned, and scores were injured. The sailors were part of the multinational force arrayed against Iraq.

Vickery, 33, was among four American sailors interviewed at Haifa's Rambam Hospital. He is from Jacksonville, Fla., which is not far from Mayport, the Saratoga's home port.

Three of the sailors said the boat had been taking on water over the stern in heavy seas, then capsized when it was hit by a big wave.

Vickery said the fatal wave came about a minute after he had cracked his joke.

"All of a sudden, I saw water just come flying in," he said. "And it was maybe two seconds, and the boat rolled right over."

The 13-year veteran sailor found himself trapped in the ferry's cabin, frantically struggling to find a window as the ship sank.

"I started breathing in water and almost died," Vickery said. "If I had been under the water maybe another 30 seconds, I wouldn't be lying here right now. I'd be in one of those body bags out there."

When he made his way to the surface he found "guys floating everywhere, screaming and yelling like chaos."

Despite his own predicament, he grabbed a struggling fellow sailor by the collar and dragged him toward a floating, plastic foam life ring. One rescue boat, already overloaded, passed by and threw life preservers.

In what "seemed like an hour," another boat came, also full.

"So they just dragged us through the water back to the Saratoga, and I was a real happy person to see those guys snatching me up," he said.

Two other men interviewed at Rambam Hospital identified themselves as Technician John Richards, 31, of Twin Lake, Mich., and Airman Lamont Jones, 20, of Claremont, Va.

Both were breathing with difficulty despite gas masks.

Richards recalled seeing a large wave and feeling the ship heeling to one side.

"All I can remember thinking is, `Oh my God, it's sinking,' and then I was scrambling for my life," he said faintly.