HAIFA, Israel -- At least 19 U.S. sailors drowned yesterday when an Israeli ferry returning them to the aircraft carrier Saratoga from shore sank within sight of the carrier, which was at anchor in Haifa's harbor.
More than two dozen other sailors on the ferry, all of them returning from shore leave, were injured and hospitalized suffering from exposure and the effects of swallowing sea water in what is by far the worst U.S. military accident since the beginning of the buildup of forces against Iraq.
Survivors said the 57-foot ferry, the Tuvia, sank within seconds shortly after midnight when 3- to 4-foot waves swamped the boat in circumstances that U.S. and Israeli officials said should not have had such calamitous effects.
"The waves were so bad," said Rodney Marchincella, 22, who was hospitalized. "The ship just filled with water, and we were down."
As Mr. Marchincella groggily remembered it, he was trapped underwater when the ferry capsized and he broke free through a ceiling panel. Swimming for his life, he was convinced he was dreaming:
"I know I was swimming. I told myself, I want to wake up now. I believed I was dreaming. I kept swimming, and I tried to wake up. I kept trying. I didn't know what else to do."
Events that began when he and about 100 other sailors boarded an Israeli ferry had the harrowing qualities of a nightmare. U.S. and Israeli officials remain unsure of the exact number of dead because of the confusion that overwhelmed the passengers and their rescuers, initially working by the light of flares and amid the shouts of sailors holding onto flotsam and life preservers.
Helicopters, police boats, frogmen and submarines became involved in a rescue effort that continued into the night. The ferry sank within about 300 yards of the Saratoga, which was anchored less than a mile offshore.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman said there were 19 confirmed deaths but that not all the identities had been established.
[In Washington, a Navy spokesman said the families of the dead sailors were being notified in person yesterday. It was not clear whether the Navy would release a partial list of names or wait until all the relatives had been contacted.
[Lt. Beci Brenton, the spokesman, said an investigation of the incident is being conducted by Rear Adm. George W. Gree, commander of Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8.]
Frogmen found 17 of the dead within 100 feet of the boat, the Israeli navy reported, but it was not known whether more bodies might be trapped inside the sunken vessel.
To get a final count, the Saratoga ordered every sailor on leave -- a total of 1,924 -- to return to the carrier and its three escort vessels, the destroyer Sampson, the cruiser South Carolina and the supply ship Sirius. The four ships, whose crews total more than 6,200 men, had sailed into Haifa late Thursday night.
All but six of the 27 sailors hospitalized in Haifa were released as of last night, and doctors said the remaining six were in satisfactory condition. "They are comfortable," said Zvi Ben-Ishai, deputy director of Rambam Medical Center. "Their most prominent symptom is fatigue."
Survivors said the 57-foot ferry sank after waves began crashing against the vessel's stern. Sailors said the two-person Israeli crew made no announcement that the boat was foundering or that passengers should abandon it.
According to several survivors, the Tuvia rode three large waves, each reaching higher than the vessel's windows. It crashed heavily after the third swell, the rear of the boat submerging. With its stern sinking, the Tuvia's bow rose into the air and twisted to the right, moments before the entire vessel disappeared.
Survivors spoke of being underwater before knowing anything was wrong, scrambling to smash windows and then forcing themselves through the narrow openings.
Mr. Marchincella said he walked forward to stand near the captain after the first heavy wave. He said the captain and the other Israeli crew member were among the first to flee the ship, knocking over a chair that blocked an exit. "They were the first two out," he said.
The captain, Yossi Shohat, told the armed forces radio that the passengers were "pretty merry" after leaving shore and that the boat had listed to one side. He said he left the wheel to see what was happening and found himself in the water and briefly trapped by a rope twisted around a leg.
Lemont Jones, 20, remembered the sea's seeming calm until the ferry passed the harbor's breakwater and entered open water. "A large wave came onto the back," he said. "That's when everybody yelled, 'Oh, my God,' and water started coming every which way, and people started fighting their way out."
Almost every survivor spoke with awe of how quickly things went wrong. "Nobody had time to do anything," said fireman Anthony Coleman. "It just went down. It was like lightning -- it just struck. Water was coming at you. You couldn't see your hand in front of you."