On its final voyage, the Salem Express sailed her usual 450 mile journey from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Safaga, Egypt, which took around 36 hours; they intended to unload 350 passengers, before continuing then sailing north to Suez. This route had been the ship's standard schedule since 1988. The ship's departure had been delayed by two days in Saudi Arabia due to a mechanical fault.[ The night of the sinking was stormy.
The ship ran aground on a coral reef between 6–10 miles off shore, after deviating from its planned route. The reef ripped a hole in the forward starboard bow, and knocked open the ship's bow door - allowing seawater into the car deck.] RoRo ferries are extremely vulnerable once the car-deck is breached
At around 11:13pm, a crash rocked the ship as it ran aground, and began shaking. Very soon after, it began listing to one side, and the lights went out. The captain sounded the distress signal. The ship was under water in close to 11 minutes, trapping hundreds below deck, and sank entirely within 20 minutes.
The official Lloyds Maritime Casualties Report claim there were 644 passengers in total - 180 survivors, 117 bodies recovered, out of 464 total victims. Another source gives the passengers as 650 persons - 578 passengers and 72 crew. A contemporary news report gives a slightly different total of 664 passengers, with 179 survivors and 485 missing at time of publication, with 71 crewmembers. The New York Times reported that only 10 out of 71 crewmembers had survived
Another very memorable and solemn dive in the Red Sea.