Salem Express Tragedy

Old Diver Diaries

In mid-December 1991, at the end of my working period in Magawish Resort, and while preparing to move to Sharm El-Sheikh on the first of January, urgent news was received in the middle of one of the stormy nights that a ferry crowded with passengers sank south of Safaga, during its return trip from Jeddah to the port of Safaga, which is the famous ferry. “Salem Express”.

The details of the accident were not known to us, but it was reported after that that the captain, “Hassan Moro”, may God have mercy on him, had decided for some reason to enter the port from the southern side, unlike the usual one, and the right lead of the ferry collided with the “Al-Shihr” Reef, which caused of a large hole led to the inclination of the ferry on the right side, then it disappeared under the water in a relatively short time as a result of the water rushing in its interior, and it became lying at a depth of 35 meters below the surface on the right side, and it is about 30 meters away from the reef. And half hour from Safaga in the south.

As the ferry was approaching the port when it collided, many of the passengers were already on the surface, and some of them jumped or fell into the water at the time of the collision, while others stayed until they realized that the ferry was sinking, so they jumped from.

The corpses were scattered in the ferry and around the ferry and around the reef. This was not possible for those who were able to stay on the surface of the water, so few of them survived and reached the land or was pulled out early in the morning, while many of them drowned due to the state of the sea and the degree of coldness in places that cannot be determined.

Unfortunately no one knows the total number of the victims, because the ferry had opened the doors to the passengers in the port of Jeddah, so a large number of them boarded without reservation, so it was not possible to count them, or we also heard, and their numbers were estimated at more than one thousand and five hundred passengers, and God Almighty knows!

The next day, we tried to communicate with the authorities to find out if there was anything that we could offer as a community for divers in Hurghada and Safaga, but we were met with a response that the navy forces prevent diving in the Safaga area that day due to bad weather, and we learned that some fishermen and after them some diving boats from Safaga they were able to extract some individuals swimming from above the ferry site and around the reef towards the south, and at night we received news from the authorities that the naval forces will carry out salvage operations on the morning of the third day and call on civilian divers who wish to help to be at the site.

We were all informed that we would be on the scaffolding of the port of Safaga early in the morning, and we found a relatively luxurious safari launch bearing the name of Tiran, which was donated by the “Paradise of Safaga” center free of charge to hehp.

Of course, my memory does not help me to enumerate those who were on the boat as volunteers, but I will try hard to remember, among the Egyptians were Mahmoud Al-Qersh and Hassan Al-Fouli, may God have mercy on both of them, and Mahmoud Ibrahim, Khaled Naguib, Essam Hassan, Hani Kamel, Ayman Hassan Taher, and of course Captain Alaa Nasr from the Navy and myself, and from foreigners I remember That all the diving centers in Safaga sent divers to help, I do not remember them except Robert Fortner and Karen Opstal, may God have mercy on her soul, she came from Sharm El Naga, and the Navy did not allow her to dive because she was the only woman, so she stayed on the boat!

We arrived at the site of the event in an atmosphere that can only be said to be stormy, and the scene was horrible and tragic, bags, goods and food floated on the surface of the water, sea rams and overturned rescue boats that were not able to open and save a creature, floating bodies waiting for someone to pick them up, some of them above the site, and some of them gone with the wind, and it is known that the bodies of drowned people sink to the bottom until they begin to swell, but their swelling time varies according to the structure of the drowned body and its gender, so women float before men and fat people float before thin people, and so on, the important thing is that each of us is prepared for that task and we spent our day collecting corpses from the surface, from the bottom, in the middle of the water, and from inside the ferry.

The one responsible for carrying the corpses was a boat form Suez called “Mastoura Yabano”, which was allocated by the “Dex” diving center in Safaga. The diver would take the corpse to the surface, and a zodiac from the Naval Forces would receive it. Then he, in turn, transfers them to the Yabano boat, which delivers them to the port, so that the families of the deceased who are lying down can identify them, and they take them for burial, while the unrecognized bodies are sent to the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo.

And so the first day passed, and I was not able to go on the second day, but I made up my mind, so I went on the third and final day, taking with me an underwater scooter, and I did the first dive on the bottom next to the ferry, so I collected what God helped me to collect from the corpses, the situation was more difficult and there were more corpses swelling, some of which got stuck inside the cabins and could not be taken out, according to the testimony of dear Issam Hassan, and I remember that I entered the cockpit with Hani Kamel, and we found the body of Captain Hassan Moro, may God have mercy on him, with some other bodies, and Hani took them to the surface, and in a break after the first dive I dived alone using scooter with the intention of collecting as many bodies as I can to hand them over to the authorities so that the dead are counted from those who were not included in the lists of the ferry.

For that dive, we prepared a long rope and a 15-liter cylinder that I dropped on the door of the ferry garage to use in the deco stops upon my return, because I was the only one who carried out 3 long dives at a depth of 35 meters. In conclusion, I agreed with the captain. Alaa wanted me to collect the corpses in a specific place, so he would tie them from the middle with a long rope, leaving between each corpse enough length so that the corpses would not hang while lifting them on the Yabano boat.

I have collected 24 corpses other than the corpse of a little girl who was wearing a beautiful red dress. Captain Alaa could only hold her in his hand to hand her to the zodiac instead of tying her with the rest of the corpses. I had found on the ferry a rope of red plastic, which travelers use to tie bags, so I kept it. When we had finished tying the bodies, and the length of the original rope was not enough, I connected the red rope to the end of the original rope, and handed it to Captain Alaa, so that he would hand him in turn to the zodiac, so that he could pull the bodies up and lift them on the boat. I stood watching Alaa from below waiting for him to complete the deco stop according to his schedule with the little girl in his hand, and finally he ascend to the surface handing the rope to the zodiac, and the zodiac began to pull the rope and the bodies made their way to the surface, but something happened that was not taken into account. All the bodies fell to the bottom again, and I don’t know why the rope was cut off, or if someone let it go voluntarily or deliberately!

I checked the air pressure and found it to be only 25 bar, so I left it all heading towards the ferry and found another body, my heart did not obey me to leave it, so I carried it quickly and tied it from its wrist to the other end of the rope, and then the air began to get heavy in the regulator, so I reduced the depth to 18 meters, which is the depth of the garage door, and I swam towards the ferry as I thought, I could not see it because of the poor visibility and the dimness of the light, so the sunset was imminent, and the air began to become almost impossible to breathe, and I began to tell myself that if I did not find the cylinder and had to go up to the surface with this amount of nitrogen, then I would be among the doomed, and if I did not go up, then I would be among the drowned, and in In the midst of these concerns, I imagined the phrase, and believe it or not, I was in front of the garage door, and I could see the cylinder, “Who said that the time for miracles is over?”

I picked up the regulator and became out of breath until I had consumed 50 bars in 3 minutes, then I got up holding the rope and started doing my stops, God knows how long it took. It is inevitable that I will go up. I did not know how much time I had lost, as we did not have computers at the time, and I did not plan to stay so long at this depth, but what reassured me a little was that we were on our way to Magawish, where the pressure chamber is, and that after about an hour I was still holding on, not suffering from any symptoms, O God, except exhaustion that could be explained by the exerted effort.

We arrived at the port and found the families of the victims from all the governorates waiting for the bodies of their loved ones, and they stayed in the port for days with their children and women in poor conditions and extreme cold, which made the situation absurd for many of them, so they only wanted to end this tragedy at any cost and return to their homes and jobs, to the point that I saw three Families are fighting over the body of a man who each family claims is one of them, even though he is … Filipino!

I drove my 128 car, accompanied by Ayman Taher, to Hurghada, and after 5 minutes I asked him to take over the driving, so I could not resist sleeping, and I noticed his voice saying, “Come on, Doctor, we are in front of the chalet in Magawish,” so I got up with difficulty and lay on my bed until the morning, but it was not the next morning rather, the next one, I did not imagine that I slept for about 36 hours, and all attempts to wake me up failed. Praise be to God, I had no other symptoms, and at least I knew the picture of hypotensive disease that afflicted me, and I was able to link it to a similar situation that happened to me in Sharm El-Sheikh in 1985.

The naval forces announced that they had closed the diving door to recover the bodies on the ferry, then they removed the tied bodies the next morning and sent me the small red rope, which was then fixed in the White Lady Cave in Woodhouse, Tiran, and the ferry diving continued to be officially closed for about a year in observance of the sanctity of the dead.

When diving allowed on it, I remember that I went two or three times, and it was not a favorite place for us because we experienced the horror and pain of those who were martyred in it, but the generations who did not witness these stories enjoy diving, and they are amused by watching and photographing clothes bags, children’s toys, cassettes, and scattered electric fans, which It was an integral part of the dreams of a people who lived and then died, leaving them witnessing gross negligence, bad luck, and the tragedy of a people who are alienated from their homeland and family in order to find a decent livelihood, and only find humiliation and then death.

It remains for me to say that rumors abounded about some of those who contributed to that tragedy, that they had robbed and seized the money of the drowned and their belongings, for I bear witness to God Almighty that I did not see any of them do that and none of them showed signs of a blessing, fear God in their honor, especially those who passed away.

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