||Salem Express ( 14.12.1991 )
|The Salem Express is arguably one of the most controversial wreck dives in the Red Sea due to the tragic loss of life which occurred when she sank shortly after midnight on December 14th 1991.
Diving the Salem Express is a unique experience and she is like no other wreck. Her port side is just 12 metres from the surface with her starboard side lying on the seabed at a maximum depth of 30 metres. The speed of her demise is obvious - whereever you go there are personal effects; luggage, rolls of carpet, portable stereos, even bicycles and pushchairs. Several of her lifeboats lie upright and intact where they fell from their davits to the sea floor. The possessions which litter the wreck always make this an emotional dive which should be done with the utmost respect. Over the years it has become clear that some who dive here do not leave this wreck as they found it; suitcases that were closed are now open and lots of personal items have been moved.
At the stern of the ship the two large propellers are intact and it is possible to swim under the stern from the keel to the rear deck. As you swim forward / deck side the tables in the restaurant are still fixed to the deck and much of the ceiling has collapsed towards the seabed. Doing the deepest part of your dive at the seabed on the deck side you'll swim over the lifeboats before and under the two funnels. These have the ships emblem on their outer sides (large wreaths with an 'S' in their centre). The ships bridge is a semicircular structure raised from the main deck. Many of the glass windows are gone and with her instrument panels still in place, they can be easily viewed from outside; It would seem that the trophy hunters have left her alone; for now.
As you reach the bow you'll see the bow door is wide open and at the seabed on the starboard side the extent of the damage is clearly visible. As you ascend and move to what is now the top of the wreck the immense port side stretches out before you, the upper portholes and side railing stretching away like a landing strip. Through these portholes cabins are visible with beds and fitted wardrobes.
There is not a great wealth of marine life on the wreck, but reef fish such as lionfish, surgeons and masked butterfly fish can be seen, adding just a hint of colour to the wreck.
The controversy over whether the wreck of the Salem Express should or shouldn't be dived is one which will probably never reach a final and satisfactory conclusion. The debate has been going on since she first sank and is still ongoing. One thing which is for certain is that she will always be met with mixed views, ranging from divers who do not wish to dive her, those who dive her with revere and respect, and those who quite frankly would happily collect souvenirs if given the chance. She is a place where human beings lost their lives, but then so are many of the other shipwrecks in the Red Sea.
Whatever your views on this wreck it is impossible to ignore the shroud which hangs over her - but perhaps tragedy, controversy and disagreement are actually protecting this wreck from those who for one reason or another show less respect elsewhere
The Ship: Originally built in the French shipyards of La Seyne in 1964, the ship was launched under the name Fred Scamaroni in 1966 and was a roll-on, roll-off ferry for vehicles and passengers. During subsequent years the vessels name was changed several times, to the Nuits Saint George, Lord Sinai, Al Tahara and in 1988 to the Salem Express. She was registered to the SAMATOUR LINE of Alexandria at the time of her sinking.
At 115m long, with an 18m beam and 5m draft she was a sizeable vessel. Her bow encompassed a lifting mechanism designed to pivot the entire forward bow upwards, whilst ramps were then lowered allowing vehicles and passengers alike to embark through her nose, directly forward of the raised bridge section on her upper deck. This lifting mechanism was to become a major contributing factor in her tragic loss some 25 years after her launch.
The Sinking: In the early 1990's the Salem Express was operating as a passenger ferry, based in the port of Safaga and on the evening of December 14th 1991 was returning from the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Reportedly heavily overloaded with several vehicles and hundreds of pilgrims returning from their holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, she was nearing the end of her journey and approaching port Safaga from the southeast. A storm had been building for some hours and was now blowing at gale force when the Salem Express struck an unkown reef near Shaab Sheer, with catastrophic force.
Striking the reef on the starboard side of her bow, slightly below the bow door, she not only ripped a hole in her side, but the entire bow door was forced upward. Her forward motion only served to increase the upward pressure on the door until it was fully open and forced thousands of gallons of water directly into her hull. It is reported that she sank fully to the seabed in 30 metres of water, close to the reef she had struck in as little as 10 minutes, where she rests today on her starboard side with her bow door gaping open. The severity of the storm and the fact that the tragedy occurred a good hour from the port in the dead of the night made rescue operations virtually impossible, although heroic attempts were made by many vessels based in Port Safaga. The demise of the ship happened with such speed that none of the lifeboats had time to launch and most of these now lie with the ship.
The massive loss of life alone makes this one of the worst tragedies in the Red Sea. There is no exact manifest of the number of passengers who were aboard the vessel, but it is widely believed that she was extremely overcrowded with passengers packed on her upper decks as well as lining her corridors. The final death toll was placed at 470, with 180 passengers and crew miraculously surviving, many reaching shore under their own steam.
When considering the scale of this disaster it is easy to see why so much controversy surrounds the Salem Express as a dive site: there is the speed and circumstance of her demise and the inability to launch a single lifeboat; the religious factors (the fact that she was carrying so many pilgrims from Mecca); the impossible rescue circumstances of the storm and the time of impact being during the night and many other factors which make the decision to dive here one filled with consideration.