Tragedy of Salem Express
On 16 December 1991, the port of Jeddah located on Saudi Arabia's western Red Sea coast was left behind by an Egyptian ferry called Salem Express. The vessel transported mainly Egyptian pilgrims returning from Mecca, where they had celebrated the end of Ramadan.
The ferry was bound for Safaga, a port on Egypt's eastern coast, located some 60 km south from the more famous Hurghada. Since 1988, the vessel was captained by an experienced Egyptian Navy Academy graduate, Hassan Moro, who was employed by Samatour Shipping Company. Moro was well familiar with the route from Jeddah to Safaga. Usually, he managed to bring the ferry to the Egyptian port before noon by crossing the dangerous waters of Handyman Reefs. This maneouver took him about two hours of the voyage from Saudi Arabia. Most professional skippers would have chosen a different route to Safaga, circling the famous Panorama Reef from the north, then plotting a south-west course to the final destination. Following the loss of the Salem Express, all the larger vessels have been obligated to take the above route. On 16 December 1991, the Salem Express left for its last voyage. It covered the distance of almost 450 sea miles; during that time the responsibility for the ship's and passangers' safety was borne by the Captain. During the night, the weather broke, as it tends to happen on the Red Sea in winter. Wind became stronger and the sea started rocking the ferry. Most passangers hid on lower deck; the Captain must have been conscious of their discomfort.
As the vessel was approaching the Handyman Reefs, it was midnight already and the dangerous coral reef was impossible to see in the stormy conditions. Moro drifted slightly south from his usual course, which caused the Salem Express to crush noisily against the small southernmost coral reef. The results of the crash were carastrophic. At first, a loud nag was heard and the ferry's hull stopped, then it rolled onto the starboard side and started taking on water. At the same time, a collision of the bow's keel with the reef caused the car hatch to open; as a result water suddenly started flooding the ferry and its weight led directly to the vessel's sinking. From then on, events followed one another with amazing speed. The stormy weather caused the tilt to the starboard side. Panic among passangers and the crew prevented any kind of organized evacuation. Within only 20 minutes from the collision, the Salem Express rested at a depth of 30 m, laying on its starboard side, right beside the unfortunate reef.
Several small ships which were anchored off the bigger reef, were unable to offer any speedy assistance to the sinking Salem, due to the fear of destroying own property. In his testimony, one of their skippers said that at one point he could see the lights of the Salem Express, which shortly disappeared from his view. The catastrophe directly consumed the lives of many people, but there were some who survived by reaching the shore on their own. The rapid sinking of the ferry prevented any proper evacuation, and all the ship's boats rested on the sea bed alongside the grand wreck. Any survivors could only count on their own strength. Fortunately, the current on that day was favorable and took them in the direction of the shore. A hundred and eighty persons survided the collision.
According to the records, the ship carried 578 passangers and 72 crewmen, which gives 650 persons altogether. However, unofficially it is estimated that there were twice as many people onboard, as throngs of people wanted to return home after the end of Ramadan. Still, it is highly unlikely that the authorities of the Jeddah port allowed for such overcrowding, and all the official reports on the loss of the Salem Express state that the tragedy costed the lives of 470 persons. Naturally, victims' relatives searched for answers to many difficult questions raised by the catastrophe; finally, the crew's inefficacy was blamed, particularly when it was found out that the ship's boats rest on the sea bottom. Of course, the Captain, Hassan Moro, who managed to survive the sinking, was pronounced responsible for the loss of the ferry and incarcerated, only to commit suicide in prison.
During the next several days many bodies of victims were recovered, but the increasingly deep penetration of the ferry's wreck was becoming more and more dangerous. That is why at some point the search conducted by the Navy divers was stopped. Since then, it is generally believed that the wreck of the Salem Express ferry is a tomb for many bodies.
In 1966, the vessel under the name of "Fred Scamaroni" was launched in La Seyne, by a French company called Constructions Navales et Industrielles De la Mediterranee. The name couldn't seem to stick: first it was "Nuits Saint George", then " Lord Sinai" and "Al Tafira", to finally receive in 1988 the name of the "Salem Express". The ship's displacement was 4771 tons, while its length measured to 100.29m and the width to 18.1 m. The engine room featured an eight-cylinder foursome expansion diesel engine, manufactured also in France, by Ch de L'atlantique.
Diving the Salem Express
The Salem Express is the biggest wreck located in the Egyptian part of the Red Sea, of size comparable to that of the Thistlegorm. It rests ideally on its starboard, with the bow at a maximum depth of 32 m and the stern at the level of 29 m. The wreck's front hatch, which allowed vehicles access on the ferry, is still open. More advanced divers could explore that part of the wreck. At the bow side, the may interesting elements are located, including deck cleats or two chain ko³owroty z ³añcuchami, which hold up the anchors located on each side of the bow.
From the front, the superstructure has a row of cabin windows, and above there is the captain's bridge. Most glass in the windows was broken, probably during the collision, but also by divers exploring the wreck. Above the bridge, there is a massive mast, on which signalization lights and navigation devices were placed. At a depth of 10-12 m, there is a corridor on the portside, with doors that used to open to the interior of the wreck. However, all the openings are closed-off; some of them must have been locked during the sinking, while others were closed off by the collision. Behind the captain's bridge and above the cabins there is an open deck, whose both sides feature the straps of the ship's boats. All the boats rest on the sea bottom. Around the middle of the dive I managed to find two funnels, whose outer layer is decorated with massive "S" letters surrounded by the lauel leaves, which, accidentally, looked remarkably alike the simbols of an exclusive hotel network called "Sheraton". Just under the funnels, two ship's boats rest on the sea bottom.
As you swim towards the reef, you can find many personal objects remain unerwater, reminding anyone of the tragedy that took place here. Among such objects you can find luggage or corroded radio contact. So far, I only met with a large group of yellowfin goatfish (Mulloides vanicolensis). At the wreck tou can also observe Emperor Angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator), Masked Butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus) and, by the bottom, Bluespotted Stingray (Taeniura lymma). Sharks have also been spotted. After almost 12 years from the ferry sinking, the vessel is encrusted with beautiful specimens of hard and soft coral, which have covered all the elements of the deck.
At the bow, you can see railings that look stunning against the backdrop of midnite blue of the Red Sea. Behind the bow, the rudder and two propellers from the ferry can be found. The keel must also be considered exqually interesting, but we didn't have time for a thorough examination.
The attractiveness of diving this wreck is increased by the tragic history of its loss. However, there still are many scuba centers that refuse to organize dives at that spot. There are even people who fervently hope for a ban on diving the Salem Express, due to its status as a cemetary of many victims of the catastrophe, whose bodies were never found and recovered. Should you find yourself in Safada, you would have to decide if you intend to dive at the large wreck. From our part, we recommend it heartily.
Photo by: Rudi Stankiewicz
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