Egypt: Red Sea Aggressor 1 burning

06.11.2019 11:16
Kategorie: News

Report of a survivor
(translated from German version)

It was November 1, 2019. It must have been just after 1 am. I jumped into the red sea, wearing underpants and T-shirt. When I got over water again, I saw my friend and diving buddy Helmut standing on the bow as the last man. In pajamas. He hesitated just a moment,  looked around again. From the water I saw the rear third of the ship burning brightly. Then he jumped too. A little later, the first 3000 psi diving tanks exploded at the stern. But we were alive. We did not know yet that not everyone had been able to escape.  When the survivors reconstructed the events during days to come, we almost agreed:  in our eyes the operators of the ship had ignored every conceivable safety measure. The disaster could have been avoided. This report is intended to serve as a warning to all promoters - as well as to their guests.

Gallery 1 here

Helmut and I boarded the „Red Sea Aggressor 1“ on October 26th by pure coincidence. When we decided to book the liveaboard tour 'Brothers-Daedalus-Elphinstone', there were only few places left on few ships. The ship had very good reviews on various Internet portals. The operator 'Aggressor Adventures' had a good reputation - especially for first-class service. Quotation of their homepage: "world-class, intimate and artful adventures on ocean, river or land." This trip would truly become an adventure, but we could not guess. Just shortly after entering the ship we thought: It was not really 'world class'. It seemed more like a middleclass boat at the end of its life cycle. Our toilet flush had to be repaired almost daily, the air conditioning in the cabin fell out at times, the decor seemed a bit tired, the carpets old. One of the two showers on the dive deck broke down on the second day, the Nitrox system on the third day. There was always something to fix for the crew. Nevertheless, none of the guests complained - and there was a reason for that.

The crew was, without any question, more than eager to read each and every wish from the eyes of their guests. They were perfectly trained to do so. The food was excellent. When returning from the dive, the regulator had barely been taken out of the mouth, as the steward pushed a cup of freshly squeezed juice into each diver's hand. You hardly had a chance to put your fins on or off yourself. The diving suits were also adjusted and closed by helping hands. And truly unique - a special service brand on the 'Aggressor Adventures' dive ships: as soon as a guest takes off the neoprene after the dive and stepped back from the shower on the dive deck, it takes less than five seconds for a crew member to lay a a pleasantly preheated towel on the shoulder. You could count: one, to three, ... towel! The supply of warm towels never dried up. They came, perfectly timed, out of the tumble dryer. In this regard, the crew was trained incredibly well. On the penultimate day of the trip we learned: there was apparently less training for more vital things.

Of course there was a safety briefing at the beginning of the trip. To get in the mood, it started with a video message from the President of the Aggressor Group. None of us has the exact wording in mind anymore. On the company's homepage, the CEO's message reads: "As Chairman and CEO, one of the most important parts of the business is to travel to Aggressor Adventures destinations to ensure we are continuing to deliver the safety, quality and personal service that we have built our reputation on.“ I really wonder when he or one of his employees has visited the „Red Sea Aggressor 1“ for the last time. And what did he do to check that his promise was upheld? After this greeting, the first dive guide and 'tour director' explained that the ship was built some twenty years ago, is known in egypt unter the name 'Suzanna', and was extensively rebuilt and modernized four years ago for the Aggressor Group. At that moment my buddy said to me "That's probably due again". After that, the chief diving guide and tour-director explained the main safety measures on the ship: life jackets lie on the top 'sundeck', lifeboats and collection point are to be found in the back of the upper deck, in case of fire there would be smoke detectors. Once you hear them, you should immediately leave the cabin, collect on deck. For the majority of passengers who have a cabin in the lower deck, the escape route leads across the single staircase to the rear of the main deck, right into the back end of the salon. If this escape route is blocked, there would be an emergency hatch in the front, in cabin 1. This leads to a crew compartment and from there  with a ladder to the deck at the bow of the ship. It was also said: It is strictly forbidden to operate electrical equipment, especially chargers, in the cabs because of fire, as long as you are not yourself in the cabin. Even at night, if one sleeps, the operation of electrical equipment is prohibited because of fire hazards. Chargers must only be operated on the dedicated table in the rear of the main deck. Right next to the staircase that leads up from the lower deck, into the so-called 'Saloon'. They told us there always would be someone, all around the clock - as a fire watch.

I can swear there was no fire watch. I am a night owl, was usually the last guest on the boat, who was still awake. Mostly on a sundeck chair still looking at the stars or reading with my e-book reader. When I came down from there, via the upper deck, down to the dive deck, through the glass door into the salon, towards the lowest deck, on the first evening I noticed that no one was present. 'So much for a fire watch,' I thought. The thought came back to me on the evening of October 31, when I again was the last person to go down the stairs to the lower deck cabins, right between the coffee machine and battery charging desk at around 11 pm. In that sense, I may have a small share in the blame for the disaster. I should have awakened someone from the crew and pointed out the missing fire watch. Another guest did this - unfortunately much too late - about two hours later.

I woke up and heard footsteps, muffled calls, 'Fire, Fire'! In fact, there was a slight burning smell in the air, not a pleasant campfire scent, rather chemical and nasty. I asked my friend lying in the second bunk, whether he smelled it too. He seemed to have awakened at the same time and murmured, 'yes, something is going on'. When I stuck my head out of the cabin door, I saw smoke in the corridor, the smell was extreme. I was reckless and went back to the cabin again. tried to find my glasses in the compartment next to the bunk. Without them, I'm as blind as a mole. I poked around, could not catch them, maybe for 20,  at maximum  30 seconds, the same did my buddy. Then I said: 'Fuck the glasses, we have to get out of here'. When we returned to the corridor, the smoke was much more massive. I tried the stairs to the stern, but on the second or third step, the heat ot my head became unbearable, the smoke extremely biting and I heard nasty crackling. So back to the bow, to the emergency exit. Helmut directly behind me, behind him was someone else, until today we do not really know who it was. We reached the escape hatch, through which someone else just crawled. Then helping hands pulled me into the room beyond. At the frenzied pace the smoke and fire were already spreading, it was clear that if we had come out of the cabin only 30 seconds later, we too would have been dead. Another guest, an engineer by profession and expert in safety of industrial plants, later explained: The smoke had the very special smell of burning PVC cable. Chlorine. They are not used in the industry any more, because these gases massively reduce the ability to escape.

A complete reconstruction of the last minutes emerged when all the survivors were  questioned by the Egyptian police and talked a lot. A guest had woken up. He smelled smoke, woke his roommate, He tried - as I later did - to get up the stairs to the stern. He was able to climb a few steps higher than i could do some minutes later. He reported that he had seen intense red glow through the thick smoke, possibly on the side where the coffee maker stood, maybe a little further to the right where the loading table was. But even at this time it was impossible to reach the exit on this way. He turned and ran back towards the bow end of the corridor. He was loudly calling 'Fire-Fire', banging at some doors. That must have been the moment I slowly woke up. At the front end of the corridor, he opened the door to cabin 1, where the emergency exit was located. When he tried to open the emergency exit, he succeeded only a few inches. Something blocked the hatch. He pushed harder, shook, .... after some time he managed to open the hatch and noticed the cause: On the back was a mattress and on it a sleeping crew member. It was - as far as  we know - the first crew member to get awake. At some point between this first guest and me, the tour director, the 'first dive guide', must have awakened. He lay in cabin 2, also in the lower deck, at the bow, near the emergency exit. No one remembers when he came out of the cabin - as far as we all know in any case it must have been before me and Helmut. He would have had time to run down the corridor, tearing open all the cabin doors,  warning the passengers. Granted, we did not do that either. But he should have been trained for that. After all, some of us remember that a second dive guide who lived in that cabin, helped them escape from the lower deck. We survivors agree:  we dont blame individual crew members, they can only do what they are trained to do in a crisis. And in no moment, from the first second of awakening, to no fifteen minutes later, the boat was on fire from bow to stern, not even a single human heard a single beep from a single smoke detector.

A human died for that reason. It was an American government employee, Army veteran, housed in the rearmost cabin. The other guests' pajamas were not dry yet, as reports surfaced in American dive forums, praising the heroic rescue efforts of the crew - and claiming she had died because she had gone back into the cabin to get her laptop to rescue. As far as we we know she did not even have a laptop on the boat. We do not know who put this nonsense into the world. Everyone may think his part. As far as we survivors and only witnesses can reconstruct, for her and her roommate it was similar like for Helmut and me. When both were awake almost at the same time, both tried to catch a few things shortly. Without knowing it, the were even closer to the source of the fire than ourselves. One of the two women must have been the human directly behind Helmut and me, the last who escaped the lower deck. Her roommate, as far as we know, hesitated only a few seconds too long. As described: There was not even a fire alarm.

Meanwhile, the catastrophe took its further course at the stern.The few passengers, whose cabins were on the main and upper deck, had also awakened and made the only possible staircase down to the dive deck. There they looked  through the windows of the salon. Thick smoke and, at the bow end of the salon, a huge ugly red glow. Shortly after them, the first crew members arrived there, managed to let down the dinghy from the upper deck at the stern into the water. This took one or two minutes.The guests standing at the stern jumped in quickly and reported that presumably the mechanic was trying to open the door to the salon armed with breathing mask and fire extinguisher. He could not know, but that was a mistake. For as the door opened, the smoldering fire got fresh air and everything stood in blazing flames instantly. It quickly inflamed the neoprene suits hanging in the stern, the jackets, all the rest.
Around the very same time, Helmut and I must have been coming up the ladder at the bow of the ship. To estimate time in such situations is hardly possible. But it may only have taken a minute or two before the people sitting in the dinghy at the stern and seeing much more shouted at us. 'Jump, Jump'. I could hardly believe it and jumped as penultimate. A little later, the first dive tanks exploded at the stern. In the water we met a crew member. It was spooky. He had saved his hard-shell suitcase, which he was hauling in one hand behind him as he swam. Meanwhile, the fire had reached the bow of the ship at great speed. There were barely ten minutes between our first awakening and this moment.

Fortunately, we anchored near the banks. It was the last night at sea. Behind us, a ship of the Emperor fleet had moored. On this ship apparently a crew member was on nightwatch. When we jumped off our ship, they already had  released their lines and started to drive the ship out of the danger zone. Then they put a Zodiac in the water and began to collect us. On behalf of all, I would like to once again thank the Emporer fleet and especially this crew and their passengers. When all the survivors arrived on the emperor-ship and we counted our heads, it became apparent that a woman was missing. The Zodiacs spent well over half an hour orbiting the burning wreck and looking for her. Vain. As we were told later, as far as I remember somebody did read it in an egyption online paper, the "Red Sea Aggressor 1" burned far into the day, drifting out to sea and eventually sank to a depth of about 200 meters.

To summarize: Not a single smoke detector was active, the whole crew deeply asleep, the only  emergency exit blocked. Someone can hardly make more mistakes. In purely legal terms, it will probably be argued that the boat owner is responsible, if at all. Although there is a strict, unified 'branding' for the whole fleet and all ships are marketed from the US, they have different owners worldwide. It's a kind of franchise business. But if such a company operates its fleet on globally consistent standards - remember the warm towels - if they write company logos and brand names on ships, and if the CEO claims to visit all the destinations (ships) to ensure consistent standards, including safety, then he has to be responsible for obvious lack of safety standards. I did sent this report to the president and the CEO of ‚Aggressor‘ yesterday to give them the chance for comments. No Answer yet.

Even the days after were no fame for this company. Crew and guests of the Emperor ship were extremely friendly to all of us. They gave us T-shirts, to some of shorts, handed out hot drinks, were just nice. After the ship had brought us to the port of Marsa Alam before dawn, we spent a few hours on the office of customs and harbor police. Some of us still wearing wet, slowly drying, laundry. At some point an Egyptian representative of ‚Aggressor‘ appeared. And although there should actually exist a well stocked warehouse, (Agressor sells branded clothes as souvenirs - on every two weekly tours that start here) he has not even thougt of bringing dry clothes.After all, he shipped us to a nearby hotel, where the operator of the hotel shop gave us T-shirts and shorts. It was only on the evening of the second day after the disaster that we slowly began to feel that the global Aggressor Group was worried about us. In the coach we were taken to Cairo to the embassies, where we received new papers and visas, took care of return flights, promised to settle our material losses by the insurance. Reimbursement of the travel price and - one hardly believes it - a voucher for another Aggressor adventure journey. How much more adventure can we endure?
There was a representative of ‚Aggressor‘ wating for us in Cairo. He actually seemed to work very effectively. He introduced himself as David, the company's marketing director. Today i could not find him in the emloyees column of the company homepage. But anyhow: many survivors tried to tell him what really had happened on the boat. Everyone reports that he has stopped this energetically. Finally, on the last evening in Cairo, I managed to give this David a short version of this report. He seemed stunned. Nevertheless, none of the survivors has received a real apology. The company only apologizes  for the 'tragic' catastrophe. Nothing more. But they already did send us a voucher for another ‚Agrresor‘ liveaboard. No more comments.

Lessons to be learned - as  boat operator and customer: do the smoke detectors work? Is there a crew member awake? Always? At sea and at anchor, the whole night?  Are the emergency exits free and quickly passable? Do not take it for granted! Check yourself! If in doubt, alert the crew to safety issues! And last but not least: Always have a waterproof bag with passport, credit card, smartphone and possibly glasses, right next to the bed! A mobile smoke detector, suitable for travel  can’t hurt either.

Michael Houben  /
5th of November 2019 with minor modifications on 6th of November  

In agreement with the other survivors I write this report to the best of my knowledge and belief. The original text is written in german language - i do hope the english translation is readable at least. Every detail is attested by testimonies and can be sworn if necessary. This text may be translated into any other language withount holding me responsible for any translation errors. I apologize for typos, my spare glasses are not my current prescription.  As long as it is not changed, this text may be forwarded - free of copyright - and published in non-commercial media worldwide. For partial citations or publication by commercial media my consent is mandatory. This paragraph is an integral part of the text and must not be removed.

(1) Supplement from 06.11.2019. Meanwhile, I was contacted by a diver, who until 3.11. did not know about all this. He had booked two dives on a day boat. They dived just where our boat had been burning. I believe him that he had no idea. But he and his buddy stayed  away from the other divers, exploring the reef .... and found a wreck. At least parts of it, widely distributed, like after an explosion. And absolutely fresh. Including bursted dive tanks, When he touched parts he had soot on his hand. I have a photo. The Red Sea Aggressor is not lying 200 meters deep, but can be visited by police and FBI at any time.  It seems like this story is not over yet.