In the early nineties, the tame waters of Safaga became the stage for one of the biggest maritime tragedies in the recent history. On the night of December 14, 1991, around 11:13 p.m, the Salem Express hit a coral reef, causing it to sink very quickly. Stormy seas, strong winds, the dark of night as well as the speed of the sinking are all reasons why the ship took a very large number of lives to the depths with it.
Facts about the ship
The Salem Express ferry was 115 meters long and almost 18 meters wide. Its draft was 4.78 meters with a cruising speed of 20 knots. At its maximum capacity, the ship could carry 1,256 passengers with 428 passenger beds and could accommodate up to 145 vehicles. It was served by 63 crew members.
Captain Hassan Moro had commanded the ship since 1988 and knew the Red Sea very well.
The last trip
It all took place whilst sailing from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Safaga, Egypt. The Salem Express had to travel 450 miles across the Red Sea. This route had been established back in 1988 and usually took about 36 hours to cross.
Most of the passengers were Egyptians returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. The exact number of people who were actually on board will never be known for sure as very different numbers can be found in the reports. Media from the time mentions the number as 664 passengers, of whom 179 survived and 485 died. Crew members are also included in this statistic.
The departure from Jeddah was delayed by two days due to technical issues. When the ship reached the coast of Egypt, the sailing conditions were very bad. The captain gave orders to abandon the usual route and reach the port of Safaga via a shortcut between Panorama and Hyndman Reef. Later reports say that due to extremely strong winds and large waves, the Salem Express veered off course and struck Hydman Reef with its bow. As a result of hitting the reef, a hole appeared in the right side of the bow. The bow door for loading vehicles also unlocked, opening the path for water to enter. That was the beginning of the swift end of the Salem Express. With ships of this type, if water starts to penetrate into the space where the vehicles are, sinking happens very quickly.
The ship soon tilted to one side and panic reigned on the decks and inside the ship. Only one lifeboat was lowered into the sea. The speed with which the ship sank caused a large number of casualties. With the addition of the stormy night, the conditions for the worst scenario were created. The rescue operation did not start until the afternoon of the 15th of December because the conditions at sea were extremely bad, contributing to an even greater number of victims.
Opinions are very divided about diving the wreck of the Salem Express. Some divers are delighted with the authenticity of the wreck, while others feel the bad energy during a dive. The ship lies on its starboard side, at a maximum depth of 32 meters. The port side is 12 meters deep. Visibility is excellent, and the currents are not too strong, so this dive is not complicated.
If you decide to dive on the Salem Express, you should be aware that the remains of a large number of victims are still inside. After so many years, they are not clearly visible, but they are inside the ship on the lower levels below the deck.
There were hints that the entrances to the ship's interior were welded, but the situation is completely different. If you decide to enter the ship, you should hire an experienced dive leader because the wreck is large, full of corridors and decks, and perspective is changed because it is turned on its side. Passenger's personal belongings are scattered in and around the wreckage and further reinforce the impression of the tragedy and drama that took place 31 years ago.
As we have already mentioned, opinions are divided about organized dives on the Salem Express, however, the vast majority of diving centers have included this location in their regular offer. To dive, or not to dive remains the choice of each individual. Either way, Salem Express is a very impressive diving experience.
Text and photos by Janez Kranjc