Port Where Ferry Tragedy Occurred Is Frequent R&R Spot With AM-Gulf-Capsize, Bjt
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The Israeli city of Haifa is a frequent port of call for American sailors seeking rest and recreation. Last year, more than 45,000 sailors attached to the U.S. Sixth Fleet visited the hilly Mediterranean city.
At least 19 American sailors were killed early Saturday when a chartered Israeli ferry capsized as it was carrying them back to the USS Saratoga after shore leave in Haifa.
The Saratoga, part of the 6th Fleet, is deployed in the region as part of Operation Desert Shield, the military buildup launched after Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Accompanied by three escort ships, the Saratoga had dropped anchor off Haifa on Thursday, and shore leave for 1,920 of the crew began Friday.
Sailors rescued from the capsized ferry said they had spent their shore leave having dinner, drinking or visiting discotheques.
Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, has been a liberty port for U.S. sailors for about 20 years.
Despite its mixed Jewish-Arab population, the city has been relatively unaffected by the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Last year, a budget crunch almost forced the closing of USO operations in Haifa. The USO has a library, a sitting room, a canteen and an information center. Volunteers help visitors arrange tours of the Holy Land.
The center was saved by appeals from the 6th Fleet, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington and congressional intervention.
Many American visitors have compared Haifa to San Francisco. Biblical Mount Carmel is a backdrop to the city, and steep roadways lead away from the port.
The city, with about 240,000 residents, has been continuously inhabited since the 14th century B.C. and was the site of Elijah’s biblical conflict with pagan priests.