HAIFA, Israel -- Divers Saturday inspected the wreck of an Israeli ferry but found no initial evidence of sabotage against the boat that capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, killing at least 19 U.S. servicemen returning to the USS Saratoga after shore leave in Israel.
Both Israel and the United States launched investigations, but senior Israeli military officials said divers making a preliminary check found no sign of sabotage against the Ein Tuvia -- a ferry contracted by the U. S. military to shuttle sailors to the port of Haifa.
The USS Saratoga aircraft carrier, with more than 4,500 servicemen aboard, arrived outside the port Friday morning for a recreational stop away from its duties in the Red Sea as part of Operation Desert Shield.
Just before midnight, the two-tiered ferry was bringing 102 servicemen back to their ship after a pre-Christmas shore leave when it capsized about 200 yards from the Saratoga. Officials later recovered the bodies of 19 U.S. servicemen.
The accident was the deadliest of Operation Desert Shield, which began shortly after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. A U.S. Air Force Galaxy transport plane crashed Aug. 29 at Ramstein, Germany, killing 13 troops heading for Saudi Arabia. On Oct. 30, steam spewing from a ruptured boiler pipe aboard the USS Iwo Jima killed 10 crewmen.
Survivors said many of the 102 sailors aboard the Ein Tuvia had been drinking heavily during their shore leave. Army Radio and Israeli officials reported 17 of those killed apparently were trapped in the ferry's lower level and their bodies not discovered until after daybreak.
Army Radio reported one U.S. serviceman whose body was retrieved early in the search operation was found with his hands locked in handcuffs after apparently being detained onshore by military police.
But a Navy official in Washington denied any victim was handcuffed, saying 'there is no information that any such thing happened.'
Maj. Gen. Micha Ram, commander of the Israeli navy, also said the sailors aboard the Ein Tuvia were not wearing life jackets and had not been required to use them on the short trip between Haifa and the aircraft carrier.
'More and more water came in and then all of a sudden, 'shshshshsh, '' one American survivor said of the rush of water. 'All kinds of water coming in and the boat started sinking and everybody started to panic. Everybody wanted to get out.
'Everybody is opening the windows. Everybody is trying to crawl out of the little window -- everybody,' the serviceman said, his voice shaking. 'Five, 10 people out of one window, trying to crawl out and I made it. Thank God I got out. I looked out (and) all I could see was dark.'
More than 80 servicemen were rescued from the choppy, 69-degree waters of Haifa Bay. Of the more than 45 taken to hospital, most were released and eight were admitted for drowning symptoms and hyperthermia, four in serious condition, doctors said.
Most of those treated 'needed nothing but dry clothing, which they received from the Israeli army, and a bowl of chicken soup and a cup of tea from the hospital,' said Dr. Zvi Ben-Ishai, deputy director of Haifa's Rambam Hospital.
Sailors told Ben-Ishai 'the boat sank so rapidly there was no time to get to those who were trapped in the lower deck.' Officials estimate the ferry sank in 10 to 20 seconds.
Tom Abbott, deputy naval attache at the U.S. Embassy, said a serviceman on another chartered ferry taking Americans to the Saratoga 'had turned his back and turned around again and the ferry was gone.'
Rescuers in a joint Israeli and U.S. search operation lit the bay area with flares and floodlights overnight as they battled 20 mph winds and 3-5 foot seas searching for missing crewmen.
Israel Radio indicated the wind and the possibility of the servicemen congregating on one side of the ferry may have caused the accident, and Israeli port officials cited difficult and windy conditions. Israel Radio said the boat may have been suddenly swamped by water and began sinking quickly.
'It's clear that it's an accident,' said Defense Minister Moshe Arens. 'The lives of many were in danger. We did from our side all that was possible -- maybe one can say beyond that, to rescue the lives of the American sailors.'
Israeli officials extended condolences to President Bush and the families of the Americans who died, and wished a speedy recovery to the injured. Foreign Minister David Levy said Israel made all possible efforts to rescue U.S. sailors who 'are close to our hearts as our own soldiers.'
In Camp David, Md., where Bush traveled to spend Christmas, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said, 'Obviously we're upset. The White House expresses its condolences to the families.'
U.S. Ambassador William Brown, who visited the Haifa port and met with injured servicemen Saturday with Arens, said 'it is on such occasions, painful and bitter as they are, that you find out who your true friends are.'NEWLN: more
xxx friends are.'
Brown and Arens said they would wait for the results from three investigations launched by U.S. and Israeli military and civilian officials before discussing the cause. While dismissing the possibility of sabotage, senior military officials said they were waiting to complete their investigation after the ferry was taken to shore.
Haifa is a regular port of call for the U.S. 6th fleet. Nearly 2,000 crew members were given shore leave, but all were recalled immediately after the accident to help determine those still missing.
The Ein Tuvia capsized as it was waiting in rough seas near the USS Saratoga for a larger ferry to drop off other U.S. servicemen. Ein Tuvia's captain swam to the second boat and within minutes rescue operations began.
The Saratoga, based in Mayport, Fla., has spent the last five months steaming between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea as part of the U. S.-led force assembled to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, a U.S. Navy official said.
A memorial service for the victims was scheduled aboard the Saratoga Sunday before the ship continued its mission.NEWLN: ------
The Navy said people seeking information on family members on board the Saratoga could call 800-255-3808.