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A civilian ferry carrying 100 U.S. Navy sailors to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga capsized off the Israeli port of Haifa early today, drowning two and leaving 24 missing, the U.S. Navy said.

At least 33 sailors were taken to Israeli hospitals for treatment, an Israeli doctor said. Police gunboats, helicopters and rescue vessels, which plucked more than 40 seamen from the water and took them to the Saratoga, continued scouring Haifa Bay before dawn.

"An unknown number of crew members assigned to the Saratoga are in the water," the Navy said in a statement, adding that two sailors had died. It said the civilian ferry was bringing an estimated 100 sailors from shore to the Saratoga and 74 were rescued after it capsized about 1:30 a.m. Haifa time.

"The incident occurred . . . as the ferry boat was about 200 yards from the Saratoga. One hundred people were estimated to be on the ferry at the time of the accident," the statement said.

The Saratoga, part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet based in Italy with a crew of about 6,200, is stationed in the eastern Mediterranean as a battle group included in the multinational force opposing Iraq. The port was declared a closed military zone and flares were seen illuminating the entire bay area after the accident in rough seas with 3- to 4-foot-high waves.

Dr. Zvi Ben-Yishai of Rambam Hospital in Haifa said it had received the body of one unidentified sailor, that two others had swallowed water but should survive and a third had hypothermia.

An estimated 1,650 American servicemen from the Saratoga and at least three escort ships, the destroyer Sampson, cruiser South Carolina and combat storage ship Sirius, disembarked at Haifa on Friday for Christmas leave, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Don Cofman in Tel Aviv. He said the sailors in the accident were all from the Saratoga.

Kip Burke, commander, Sixth Fleet Staff, said there were two known fatalities and that an investigation had been launched into the accident. He said he was uncertain how far off shore the boat was when the incident occurred.

"There is a lot of confusion," Burke said. "The biggest problem is counting heads."

In what sources described as a massive and frantic effort, helicopters flew injured men to two hospitals in Haifa. "Anybody who can move is out there looking for people in the water," said an official.

Israeli sources said this morning that the boat that sank was an Israeli commercial craft that had been contracted to ferry U.S. sailors to and from shore.

It was motoring from Haifa to the Saratoga carrying sailors who had completed shore leave, when it split in half, the sources said. They said the cause of the breakup was not immediately known.

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