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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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August 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fire Aboard!

how John Bantin escaped a burning Red Sea liveaboard

from the August, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On July 28, the comfortable liveaboard Blue Melody had just moored at the popular Red Sea dive site of the Thistlegorm wreck after our dive at Shag Rock shortly before. Several other boats were there, and this was to be significant. We were all taking it easy during the surface interval and contemplating the dive we were about to undertake on the iconic WWII vessel that had fallen victim to a suicide raid by a German Heinkel bomber out of Crete. Sha'ab Ali was meant to be a safe anchorage out of range of the Germans at that time, and a multitude of ships were anchored, waiting to unload the war materiel they carried, intended for Operation Crusader, the British Army's campaign to drive Rommel out of North Africa in late 1941.

As I lay on a sofa in the saloon, taking it easy, I suddenly noticed the lights starting to flash in a random manner. There was something wrong with the electrical system. This was immediately followed by a loud shout from the dive deck. The engineer ran past me and hurtled down towards the engine room. A curl of black smoke warned that a fire had started. This black smoke soon became thick. The dive guides immediately went to the cabins below decks to warn any passengers that they might need to come to the emergency muster point. This was the deck immediately above the dive deck, itself covering the engine room and soon immersed in thick, acrid black smoke.

The passengers moved to the sun deck, where crew took roll. We waited anxiously as the crew fought the fire, but they weren't making headway -- the fire was getting out of control. At this point, it dawned on us that the sundeck might have only been a good place to be if the boat sank and rolled over. It was where the life rafts were deployed, but it was not a good place for most of us to jump from, as the water was 40 feet below. One of the dive guides had retrieved our passports from the wheelhouse and had them safely secured in a watertight pouch. Otherwise, what we had with us was simply what we were wearing when the emergency call was made, which amounted in some cases to precious little. One of the crew was making an SOS call on a handheld VHF radio, while the others rushed about retrieving fire extinguishers from anywhere they could find them on the vessel. The smoke was getting worse, and the deck above the dive deck was becoming untenably hot. Other inflatables from the surrounding boats gathered round the swim platform while more fire extinguishers were offered. The smell of the smoke on the top deck where passengers were gathered was getting unbearable.

The crew decided we should abandon ship to the safety of another one nearby. Inflatable boats were standing by, and 22 passengers were instructed to pass down the two sets of stairs and run the gauntlet of the thick black smoke to get to them. Everyone tried not to panic.

We scurried down the stairs and across the dive deck, where by now visibility was zero, the black smoke was so intense. Luckily we were all familiar with the Blue Melody's layout. I took the precaution of holding my breath as I passed through this area, but others were not so foresighted. We jumped without hesitation into the nearest inflatable, and as each filled to capacity, we set off to the next nearest vessel moored at the dive site, the Miss Nouran. Many passengers were coughing and several women had broken down in tears. From the Miss Nouran, we watched helplessly as our crew and crew members from other boats unselfishly took turns to enter the engine room in an effort to put out the flames, which by now had ignited the timber structure of the vessel. The smoke billowed.

By this time Blue Horizon, another vessel from the same fleet as Blue Melody, had arrived, and firefighting hoses were passed across as both vessels lay side by side. I noticed that a generator on Blue Melody was still running, and its exhaust added white steam to the billowing smoke. We realized that all our possessions were still aboard our vessel, but we were thoroughly grateful for escaping with our lives. Soon, we were invited to change over to Blue Horizon, and as we were ferried over, we found ourselves boarding the vessel alongside three firefighting crew-members, looking very much the worse for wear due to smoke inhalation. One looked beyond help.

"If this had happened at night or a
remote dive site, the outcome might
have been very different."

Luckily, among the passengers on the many liveaboards clustered round the dive site was a resuscitation nurse and a doctor who came aboard with an adrenalin kit. They heroically got the crew-member that had stopped breathing going again. Meanwhile, Blue Horizon set off to rendezvous with a high-speed rescue vessel summoned from Sharm el- Sheikh. The casualties were transferred and we headed back to Sha'ab Ali, where by now the carbon-dioxide fire retardant system in the engine room had done its job and put out the fire. (This system is a one-hit solution to a fire and is only deployed as a last resort.)

Blue Melody was taken in tow, and the two vessels journeyed together back to the port at Hurghada. Next morning, we passengers were invited in small groups to go aboard and, with the aid of flashlights, search for our belongings inside what had now become a soot-blackened hulk. A few things had gone missing, and there was a lot of smoke damage.

Meanwhile, the company found a substitute vessel and made a magnanimous offer of compensation in the form of cash, sent clothes to be laundered, and otherwise tried to mitigate the lost vacation days of its customers. Only four dives had been omitted from the original schedule, and we were soon back diving the wreck of the Thistlegorm. The three injured crew members, each suffering from smoke inhalation, were discharged from the hospital the next day.

On reflection, we had been lucky this incident had happened in the middle of the day, when Blue Melody had several other liveaboards standing by. Our lifejackets were stored in our cabins, and consequently beyond reach; obviously, they were stored there in the assumption that such an emergency would happen at night. I have always taken the precaution of keeping my essentials in a backpack ready for a quick evacuation should it happen, but again, it was below decks in my cabin.

As it was, we all came away with an anecdote to tell. If it had happened at night or at a remote dive site, the outcome might have been very different. Blue Melody did not sink, and is being refitted. Worse things happen at sea.

Next Month: What you should find out about liveaboard safety.

John Bantin is the former technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he used and reviewed virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and made around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer, and most recently the author of Amazing Diving Stories, available at

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