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January 2020    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 35, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Harrowing Tales from the Red Sea Aggressor I Fire

errors led to the disaster and post-disaster mismanagement

from the January, 2020 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

No night watch, no active smoke detectors, the whole crew asleep, and a blocked emergency escape hatch -- you couldn't make it up!

In the light of the tragic Conception fire that caused so many deaths, everyone in the diving world has become very conscious of the precautions required to operate a liveaboard safely. So, just two months after the Conception fire, killing 34 souls, we were shocked to hear of the November 1 fire aboard MY Suzanna -- operating as the Red Sea Aggressor. One diver died, an American woman who was an attorney with the U.S. State Department in Tanzania.

We immediately emailed Anne Hasson and Jay Roberts at Aggressor Adventures for details; we received no response to our request. We also tried to meet with owner Wayne Brown at the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association meeting in Orlando, a little more than two weeks after the fire but received no response. So, we put together this story based on interviews with survivors, web postings, and other sources.

The Aggressor Fleet issued a statement about the fire, which did little to get within the good graces of the survivors, by failing to take any responsibility or show remorse. It read:

"Greetings from Aggressor Adventures. Unfortunately, yesterday the Red Sea Aggressor I suffered a fire. After everyone was accounted for at the muster station and the order to evacuate was given, one guest apparently decided to return to their room during the evacuation to retrieve something and is missing. All other guests are safe.

"The yacht owners are working on a replacement vessel for all the next trips and will confirm as soon as we have the details. Please know that we are working around the clock to take care of your guests."

Those who survived the fire faced several difficult days afterward. A passenger (we'll call her Sue) told Undercurrent her experience.

She first posted information on Facebook, saying that although passengers had been told that the crew maintained a 24-hour fire watch during the initial boat briefing; it didn't seem to be true. The surviving passengers were woken past midnight by the suffocating smell of smoke -- not by fire alarms, which she said didn't work -- and made their way to the emergency exit hatch on their own.

Sue said that the crew's only rescue attempt was to pick up the passengers from the sea after people on a nearby boat, the Emperor Asmaa, called to them to jump overboard for their lives. Soon scuba tanks on deck started exploding from the heat of the fire.

Sue was a roommate of the woman, Trish Kessler, 54, a mother of two, who died, and she was disgusted at how the company attempted to malign her and take the spotlight off their responsibility by claiming she had returned to her cabin for her laptop.

Once off the boat, they were held for interviews with the local police, who allowed the local manager for the Aggressor to be present. She said he repeatedly attempted to twist, lie and mistranslate what they said to the Egyptian police via a translator, again taking responsibility off the Aggressor. Next stop, a hotel, where things did not go well.

"Despite promising us clothing and toiletries upon arrival at the hotel hours after [the Emperor Asmaa] docking and the following police interviews, they left us in wet clothes and towels and shoeless for 15 hours after the fire. A generous Egyptian hotel shop owner, Ramen Marco, [eventually] took pity on us and offered us free choice of shoes and clothing. Emperor Asmaa's crew and guests also gave us towels and some of their own dry clothes, plus emotional support. Charlotte Smuthwaite from the Sunrise Marina Resort guest services did everything she could to make things more bearable, and a German guest in the hotel dining room found three pieces of his own clothing for a shirtless male passenger, because he was almost denied entry to eat.

"When a British guest, Derek Gale, heard me on the hotel lobby phone, begging the Aggressor company to give us more than the $123 they finally supplied each passenger with at 3 p.m. after the fire, so that we could buy a cell phone and make the international calls to loved ones to make arrangements, buy some underwear, change of clothing and medication, he returned with hundreds of British Pounds he had collected . . . They and the USA embassy in Cairo provided all the necessities Aggressor Fleet had denied us."

More disturbing, she alleges that the Red Sea Aggressor I owner physically . . . hurt her in an attempt to stop her from calling Aggressor Fleet . . . Not only that, she alleges he then called the FBI to make accusations against her, a USAF veteran with an unimpeachable 24 years of civil service.

"Laughably, Aggressor has offered us vouchers for a future trip with them."

Another Passenger Corroborates the Story

Michael Houben, a journalist working for a German TV station, and another passenger on the boat, contacted Undercurrent to corroborate Sue's story and describes how he and his cabin-mate, Helmut, woke to the sound of someone calling "Fire! Fire!" When they opened their cabin door, they smelled acrid smoke. Within 30 seconds, they were out of the cabin and tried the normal stairway exit route but were forced back by the heat and smoke from the fire.

They both retreated to the emergency escape hatch toward the forward part of the boat, where they climbed through to the crew quarters after waking the man who was sleeping on top of it. The smoke and fire were quickly spreading. Had they waited another 30 seconds, they would not have made it. The smell of burning PVC-covered cable revealed chlorine gas, which would have impeded their escape. Within 15 minutes, the boat was on fire from stern to bow, and they had to jump for their lives.

Red Sea Aggressor I

Meanwhile, on the Upper Deck ...

Those passengers accommodated on the upper deck were able to hurry to the dive deck and swim platform, where a member of the crew had launched a dinghy. Patric Lengacher, a Swiss national, with his girlfriend, Gaby Ochoa, describes their escape:

"I woke up . . . and smelled smoke. I jumped up so quickly that my girlfriend woke up too. Only smelling and seeing smoke but not hearing an alarm, my first thought was that there must be a boat on fire in the vicinity and we must go and help . . . I reached back in to grab a pair of shorts, but the smoke increased so quickly that I could not see anything. Thinking that our AC unit had a problem, I turned it off and . . . I thought about the passports, but the smoke was so intense and burning in my eyes, I couldn't even feel around for them. I could barely breathe and had to get out of the cabin.

"We ran to the stern of the boat and . . . went downstairs, where we met with my girlfriend's dad, who was looking for her. We realized the fire was in the salon, and we stepped down on the dive deck. We saw smoke coming out everywhere; one could already feel the heat.

"One of the crew, wearing a protective dive mask and carrying a fire extinguisher, opened the saloon door, presumably in an attempt to fight the smoldering fire, but . . . the fresh supply of oxygen from the air caused it to instantly burst into blazing flames."

"...we never got any instructions, not to count or say our names, no question if we had our cabin-partner, no instructions to go to the muster station, no words about the life jackets."

Patric continues, "There was no yelling from the crew, no bells ringing, no alarms going. We never got any instructions, not to count or say our names, no question if we had our cabin-partner, no instructions to go to the muster station, no words about the life jackets. One Zodiac was ready, and my girlfriend and her dad jumped into it. At that same moment, the outside roof of the main deck burst into flames. It must have gotten enough heat to finally ignite outside as well. A crew-member next to me jumped immediately into the sea without saying a word. The flames were not far from where the tanks for the nitrox compressor stood, and being scared of a big fireball, I jumped into the sea.

"I swam away diagonally; the stern was already in full fire. I saw many people on the bow and realised that since the bow is a lot narrower than the stern, they could not see the fire. I started yelling as loud as I could: "Get off the boat! Get off the boat!" . . . I was still scared that the . . . tanks would explode. At the third time yelling, the first person slowly climbed over the rail and jumped, then everybody jumped."

Another liveaboard, the Emperor Asmaa, was moored nearby. Its crew launched an inflatable to pick up survivors. By this point, they were aware that Trish was missing, and they spent half-an-hour orbiting the wreck in case she was in the water.

Was A Lithium-Ion Battery the Culprit?

Patric says, during the boat briefing, the rules were very clear: "There was a charging station inside the salon, and nobody was allowed to charge anything without watching it. If you wanted to charge things while sleeping, you had to bring them to the charging station because someone from the crew would be present in the salon 24 hours a day."

A passenger from a previous trip, Fletcher Forbes (Los Angeles, CA), in the light of concerns about lithium-ion batteries, had earlier forebodings about the facilities for charging batteries and even took photographs of the charging table and its shelves. Was this the seat of the fire? It has yet to be determined.

Sue provided us with a sketch of the boat layout and told us, "The dedicated battery-charging table was [on the port side] inside the salon. Guests also charged computers and cells at [other] outlets opposite the coffee station inside the salon. Aft deck survivors have stated it was on the side of the coffee station [the opposite side to the charging station] where they saw the fire when they first attempted to egress through the primary salon exit."

Post-Trauma Management

A Canadian passenger, Ginny Seaborn, who had the presence of mind to take her passport with her when she abandoned ship, told Undercurrent in a telephone interview that there was a lot of anger among the traumatized passengers. She said that many of them failed to understand that they were in a Third World country that was also a police state. She said it was a great shame because the trip up to the point of the disaster had "been fabulous."

Ginny said it took time to get permission from the police to move people without passports to Cairo and that the Red Sea Aggressor general manager was probably initially using his own money to give each of 17 passengers the local equivalent of $100 -- quite a lot for someone on Egyptian wages

Another passenger who does not want to be named said that the Undercurrent article about the Conception probably saved her life as she was reading it that very same evening. She said what happened later "made her ashamed to be part of the human race." Unfortunately, she says she has been so traumatized by events, she needs psychological help before she can tell her full story.

We contacted the Red Sea Aggressor general manager, Ahmed Fadel, who told us he was instructed by the police to say nothing until their investigation was complete, although he confessed he was under a lot of stress.

Gaby Ochoa, a U.S. citizen who lives in Roatan and was on the craft that night, wrote to confirm there was no night watch or functioning fire alarms. She thought that the crew was poorly trained. After the event, she said, the passengers were not asked if they needed medication or medical attention. In Cairo, she witnessed the owner of the destroyed vessel, David Home, lose his temper with passengers on multiple occasions, and during this time, another passenger appeared to have a nervous breakdown.

She confirms that the second payment (of 100 Euros) from Aggressor was not enough to buy a jacket, even though she was flying to Frankfurt, where it was only 53°F. It was 66 hours after the incident that the women survivors finally were able to get underwear. No women were ever asked if they needed any hygiene articles.

The Undercurrent article about the Conception probably saved her life as she was reading it that very same evening.

The passengers saw no smoke alarms, and no fire alarms sounded. There was no night watch. There was no accounting for passengers at any muster station on the craft, and the passengers believe that Trish Keppler was unable to escape the lower deck through the emergency hatch, despite the crew claiming that she had been at the nonexistent muster station but returned below decks.

Aggressor's Reaction

Belatedly, Aggressor put a message on its website mentioning "Unfortunate events that took place in the Red Sea, resulting in the loss of a diver's life."

There was no mention of a fire or the total loss of the vessel, or the traumatic events that followed for the surviving passengers. Virtually no details reached the U.S. media, and it was left to informal diving forums to disseminate the information.

A week after the fire, Wayne Brown, CEO of Aggressor Adventures, made this statement: "After the recent Conception fire, we directed every destination to ensure that no [battery] charging was done unattended and that all lithium charging was done outside at the designated charging areas. We also had them review their emergency exit plans, fire escapes and smoke detectors for proper working order and that their fire-fighting gear was operational.

"Also, in regards to a passenger's comments that he did not hear a smoke detector -- and some research showing smoke detectors having a history of testing OK with a test button but not activating with actual smoke -- we will start requiring the testing of our smoke detectors with cans of fake smoke to ensure proper operation."

He explained the delay in dealing with the predicament of passengers without money or clothes:

"[Aggressor staff] also spent a day and a half working with tourist police gaining approval for us to relocate [the passengers] to Cairo. Egypt does not allow tourists to relocate without prior approvals that usually occur behind the scenes."

As we stated earlier, we attempted to get an interview with Wayne Brown, CEO of Aggressor Adventures, through HQ staff member Larry Speaker, but no appointment was forthcoming.

You can see video taken by one of the escaping passengers, with MY Asmaa in the background, here: shorturl.at/rBIOZ

PS: The deceased diver, Patricia Kessler of Spotsylvania, VA, was a U.S. State Department Attorney stationed in Tanzania, where she was working to improve the criminal justice system. She was a graduate of the Notre Dame School of Law, was a United States Navy Lieutenant Commander, and had been an accomplished federal prosecutor in Washington, DC, before joining the State Department.

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