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Salem Express: Dive into Maritime Tragedy


Technical diver Kurt Storms pays a visit to the final resting place of the Salem Express
Technical diver Kurt Storms pays a visit to the final resting place of the Salem Express

Technical diver Kurt Storms pays a visit to the final resting place of the Salem Express, which tragically took the lives of hundreds of people when it sank late at night enroute back from Saudi Arabia.


The launch was delayed by a fire in the engine room on June 26, 1966. In June 1966 it began sailing its first route between Marseille and Ajaccio.

The Salem Express: A Brief History

The 115-metre-long, 18-metre-wide Salem Express was launched in France in June 1965 under the name Fred Scamaroni, a member of the French resistance of World War Two. The owner of the ship was The Compagnie Generale Transatlantique. She was a roll-on, roll-off ferry for vehicles and passengers in the Mediterranean.

In June 1966, it began sailing its first route between Marseille-Ajaccio after being delayed for a fire in the engine room. She was sold in 1988 to the Samatour shipping company and started running trips between Safaga in Egypt and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, under the name Salem Express.

The Tragic Sinking

On 14 December 1991, after a two-day delay due to a mechanical fault, she began sailing her usual 450-mile journey from Jeddah to Safaga, crammed full of pilgrims who had been to Mecca. The trip would take about 36 hours, and they intended to unload 350 passengers in Safaga before they heading north to Suez.

A storm was blowing gale force winds and the people on the outer decks were getting drenched, so the captain decided to stay close to the shore to shave time off the journey instead of the longer route along the outer reefs. Unfortunately, the captain misjudged their position, and at 11:31pm, she ran aground on an outer pinnacle of Hyndman Reef. The result was disastrous.

Not only was water coming in from a hole in the starboard side, but the impact was that hard, the impact caused the bow loading door to open, letting thousands of litres of water in. Almost immediately, the ferry started to list over to the starboard side, making it impossible for the crew to deploy any of the lifeboats.

Lifeboat on the seabed
Lifeboat on the seabed

The Salem Express, under the command of Captain Hassan Moro, who had been at the helm from 1988, sank within 20 minutes of hitting the reef. Manny people died trapped inside the wreck.

Rescue Efforts and Survivor Stories

Because there was a bad storm and the fact the tragedy occurred more than an hour from the port in the middle of the night, rescue boats arrived much too late. More than 180 of the survivors had to swim to the shore. Loss of life was considerable, with the official figure being quoted as 464. Rumour suggests that the ship was overloaded and that the death toll was closer to 1,200. Many bodies were recovered after the sinking, but eventually a halt was called due to the danger involved and the wreck was sealed with plates welded across openings into the deeper interior.

The first survivor, Ismail Abdul Hassan, was an amateur long-distance swimmer who worked as an agricultural engineer. He stood on the ship’s deck as it went down. He followed the lights of the port and swam to shore, surviving 18 hours int the water. He attempted to lead two other men to safety, who held onto his clothes, but died from exhaustion on the way.

Diving the Salem Express

We reached the wreck by a decent line. She is lying on its port side and we made our way around the stern to the back, where we now had a good view off the two propellers. They are giants. Between the propellers we could see the rudder. After taking some pictures we headed around on to the decks, and we could see the lifeboats at 30m of depth.

One of the enormous propellers
One of the enormous propellers

Exploring the Wreck

In the past, there were two lifeboats lying on the bottom, but now there is only one left. Nobody knows where the second one is.

The upper walkway of the Salem Express
The upper walkway of the Salem Express

I like wrecks, but I don’t like seeing lifeboats on the bottom of the ocean. Lifeboats are supposed to carry people when the ship sinks, and bring them to safety, and they can’t do that when they’re on the bottom. At the stern of the ship, I saw on the bottom a television, and a radio. People who had dived the Salem Express in the past had put them on display like this, because this is not a natural location.

Items from the ship
Items from the ship

We went further towards the bow and saw the big smokestacks, on the side you can see the logo of the Salem Express. The exhausts are full of life, with plenty of coral growth from the years the ship has been sunk.

The Bridge and Cargo Zone

Further towards the bow you come to the bridge. I dropped through the open door and not there are not many instruments left in the consoles anymore. I then continued up and out through the upper door.

The impressive bridge area
The impressive bridge area

I continued my way, via port side, and entered the cargo zone via an open hatch. I descended here and via the lights from my torch, you could see the car wrecks lying in a heap. As I exited and swam through the restaurant, complete with tables still in place, I came across a few wheelbarrows with mattresses in them, and suitcases – grim reminders of this wreck’s sad past.

A car in the vehicle compartment
A car in the vehicle compartment

Decompression and Reflection

Now it was time to say goodbye to this beautiful wreck and do my decompression duties. These are not so big, because I did the dive on my Divesoft Liberty SM rebreather, so the decompression obligations are drastically less compared to traditional diving.

Once back on the boat, everyone was quiet for a moment. We all thought this was a beautiful wreck, but because of the history, and the tragic number of dead, it will always remain a cemetery and we must show the necessary respect when visiting her.

Photographs by Kurt Storms

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #67

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