During our initial dive on the Salem Express, it became clear to us that we were not the first divers to visit the wreck. One of the earliest clues was the sight of a portable television perched on the side of the hull in a spot where it was unlikely to have landed all by itself. It was obvious that it had been placed there by someone who had found it elsewhere in or near the sunken vessel. That television was the first of the many personal belongings we would see during our three dives on this wreck -- items that must have belonged to the passengers who were on board the night the ferryboat sank in the Red Sea.
As I mentioned previously, we got to dive on the wreck of the Salem Express while it was still quite fresh. We knew that the remains of many of the several hundred passengers and crew who had lost their lives in the accident had never been recovered, and were presumed to be entombed inside the wreck. With that in mind, we took care to treat the scene with respect, and we agreed amongst ourselves that we would not take anything from it. We took no souvenirs except photos, and there were some things we saw that we did not even photograph.
The personal effects scattered about the site of this wreck were so many! When we all talked afterward about what we had seen, we discovered that each of us had had similar thoughts while looking around: wondering who these things had belonged to, and imagining how terrifying that night must have been for them.
At the time it sank, the Salem Express had been nearing the end of a regular run from Jeddah, a port on the Saudi Arabian side of the Red Sea, to Safaga, on the Egyptian side. News reports about the disaster had mentioned that many of the passengers were returning home from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Others were Egyptian workers employed in Saudi Arabia, coming home to visit their families. Some passengers were citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries: there were businessmen, as well as couples and families en route to Egypt for a sight-seeing holiday. They almost made it. The ship went down in sight of the lights of the port.
It was easy to imagine passengers out on the promenade deck, leaning on the rails and watching those lights on the coastline as the ferryboat approached Safaga. Others would have been belowdecks in their cabins, packing up their belongings, anxious to drive their cars off the ferryboat as soon as it reached the dock. The passengers might have been excited, or just relieved to be near the end of their journey. In any case, they had been real people with real lives and families.
Now all that remained were some of their possessions, scattered in and around the wreck -- clothing, shoes, handbags, toys, electronic gadgets -- all covered with a film of greenish algae. Some things, like books and notebooks, already were beginning to decay. Other things -- the TV, a child's plastic toy airplane, a set of prayer beads -- probably would remain intact for quite awhile.
Jerry and I had decided that we wanted to have a look at the ship's two propellers, so at the outset of this final dive we swam straightaway to the stern area of the ship. Jerry posed for a photo between the big blades of one propeller, and then we descended the rest of the way to the sandy bottom to join some other divers poking around in the debris trail astern of the ship.
One of the divers discovered a small suitcase there. It was an old-fashioned, inexpensive looking one made of heavy cardboard with a little bit of leather trim on the edges and two metal clasps to fasten it shut. While we hovered a little above to watch, the diver knelt in the sand by the suitcase and tried the clasps. Amazingly, they popped right open, so he lifted the lid.
Inside the suitcase were clothing items, still nicely folded in two stacks, with a shoe tucked along each side. The diver took an item from the top of the one stack and held it out in front of him. It unfolded. It was a child's striped tee shirt. The diver refolded the tee shirt, laid it back in the suitcase and closed the lid -- and the clasps. He knelt there for at least another minute, just staring at the closed suitcase. We quietly swam away, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Jerry signaled to me to swim with him along the side of the ship, heading toward the bow. Every few feet we saw another object. That's where we saw the toy airplane, and then the prayer beads, among other things.
When we were almost to the lifeboat that I had photographed the day before, Jerry spotted something that at first looked like a small book. He picked it up from the sand to examine it. It was a passport. Jerry opened the cover, turned a page or two, and then turned to me looking very agitated. He was jabbing his finger at a page as he held the passport out to me. Through the faceplate on his dive mask I could see his expression -- one we call 'fried egg eyes.'
I took the passport from him -- I'm sure I was frowning -- and looked at the page he'd been pointing to. I saw then what had made him so agitated. The passport, though soggy, was reasonably intact -- a testament to the sturdy paper those are made of, I guess -- and the indelible ink of the visa stamps also had endured these seven months under water. The photo -- or rather what had been the photo -- was still attached. The paper part of the photo was there, but I was astonished to see that there was no face! The emulsion had washed away over time. The photo was blank. Gone! For a moment I almost forgot to breathe. Now it was my turn to have fried egg eyes. (And just writing this still gives me 'chicken skin.')
Jerry took the passport out of my hand and swam over to the sunken lifeboat. He laid the passport down inside the lifeboat, and signaled to me to ascend. I nodded. This dive was finished for us. We had lost all motivation to look around at any more of the wreck or its debris.
We went to our assembly point on the port side of the hull and waited for the other divers. They arrived in a few minutes, and we all began our final ascent together. As we had done on the previous two dives, we all hovered at a depth of five meters while one diver surfaced to signal our boat.
While we were hovering one of the divers reached into the pocket of her dive vest and brought out a small white teapot. It was the size that would have held two cups of tea, and it had the shipping company's logo on it -- the same "S" between laurel leaves displayed on the ship's funnels. She held it out for a moment for all of us to see, then she purposely let it fall. The last thing we saw before we surfaced was that little teapot tumbling and twirling its way back down to the wreck.
We've never been back to that wreck, but we know that many other divers have visited the Salem Express over the past 15 years. Recently Jerry came across a YouTube video that had been shot there earlier this year. We like the video. It was nice to see so many soft and hard corals growing on the superstructure of the ship, the bannerfish near the winches, and tube sponges on a propeller blade. Best of all is the anemone on the promenade deck, complete with a resident clownfish. Go and have a look: Salem Express - Mar Rojo 2007. (And thanks to YouTube user Angel Manso from Madrid for posting the video.)
Here are the links to all five parts of this story:
Part 1: What a wreck!
Part 2: A dream trip, a storm, a mutiny, and a consolation prize
Part 3: Ninja divers: First dive on the Salem Express
Part 4: Inside the wreck of the Salem Express
Part 5: The Salem Express wreck -- A human tragedy