Flores liveaboard fire: View from the bridge

Fire on the Sea Safari VII (Mike Day)
Fire on the Sea Safari VII (Mike Day)

Indonesia’s biggest liveaboard operator has hit back at a British guest’s description of a chaotic evacuation procedure when Sea Safari VII caught fire off Flores on 2 May – suggesting that although there had been panic and lessons to be learnt, his observations had not provided the full picture. 

In particular, the company says that it had committed to covering the cost of supplying guests’ needs once they were back on land but, because all payments had been made via the dive-centre that had chartered the boat for the group, guests might not have understood this. 

Divernet ran Blazing Dive-Boat Evacuation Chaotic, Say UK Divers, a follow-up its initial news story, a week after the fire. It was based on an eyewitness account by Mike Day, a trained firefighter and experienced search and rescue helicopter pilot, so a diver well-versed in emergency situations.

Day had summed up what he saw of the standard of firefighting equipment, command, leadership, training and competence among the boat’s staff as “extremely low to non-existent” – but the Sea Safari Cruises team (referred to below as the SSCT) have now offered their collective view of how they responded to the fire and its aftermath. 

They have not addressed the cause of the blaze, which remains the subject of an investigation, but have countered a number of the accusations levelled by Day.

19-minute process

The liveaboard had been chartered by the local Scuba Junkie Komodo dive-centre, with 14 guests and 14 SJ staff occupying the accommodation. There were also 14 Sea Safari crew on board. The fire had broken out while the vessel remained near its base at Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, the group having spent their first night on board and carried out an early-morning dive. 

Day had pointed out that at the previous day’s safety briefing there had no coverage or tour of escape routes or nominated assembly points, but the SSCT maintain that their safety video covered these aspects, and that clear signage in each cabin and public area outlined how to reach assembly points.

“We understand that each individual’s perspective during an incident may vary based on their experiences and observations,” the team told Divernet. “It’s important to note that the situation unfolded rapidly, causing panic among passengers and crew. All in all, the evacuation process took roughly 19 minutes in total and it was completed in a collective effort.

“Both crew and guests acted swiftly and diligently in response to the emergency, following established procedures to ensure prompt and safe evacuation,” insist the SSCT. 

Escape from the blazing Sea Safari VII liveaboard (Mike Day)
Escape from the blazing Sea Safari VII liveaboard (Mike Day)

“When the fire initially started, a blackout occurred and smoke was detected from the starboard side of the boat and was noticed by the crew and guests who were on the middle and upper deck.” This had been described by Day, who had been having breakfast with his partner in the dining-room when they became aware of smoke and then flames. 

“Our service crew immediately instructed the guests who were all already on the middle deck to go to the assembly point, which is the dive-deck at the bow of the boat, and to wear any nearby life-jackets,” say the team, contradicting Day’s observation that no member of the crew appeared at any point to have raised the alarm or taken the initiative in guiding passengers.

The captain had been on the bridge and is said by the SSCT to have instructed the rest of the crew to immediately try to extinguish the fire at its source and deploy the life-rafts.

When the smoke was first seen, they claim that “the captain and crew had shouted ‘Smoke!’ and ‘Fire!’ in Bahasa Indonesian and English. The crew tried their best to extinguish the fire but unfortunately it was blazing uncontrollably.”

Trapped in engine-room

Although not in fact a claim made by Day, the SSCT have now noted that some guests might have been surprised to see crew-members already outside the boat before they themselves had left it. 

It appears that some of the crew had been trapped in the engine-room by fire blocking its doorway – forcing them to make their way out through a rear window and into the sea. “They immediately swam onto our two tender boats outside to assist with the onboard guests’ evacuation,” say the team.

An accusation that Day had made was that crew were packing up dive-gear near the assembly point rather than taking emergency measures. 

“While the on-board crew were trying to deploy the life-rafts, guests were already assembled at the assembly point and wearing life-jackets,” respond the SSCT. “Some of the crew who were on the dive-deck were thinking of saving the guests’ dive-gear while waiting for the life-rafts and tender boats to be ready – because some of it could be used for further safety precautions.

“Dive-gear including boots and gloves can provide thermal protection from the cold water and protection from other aspects of the marine environment while evacuating.” Cutting tools could be used in the event of possible entanglement, they say.

Another of Day’s observations had been that a senior liveaboard staff-member had jumped directly into a deployed lifeboat from the deck, risking damaging it on impact.

“When the tenders and life-rafts were ready, the crew immediately instructed the guests to jump into the water because of the rapidly spreading fire,” say the SSCT. While not addressing the point about risk of damaging the raft, they go on: “At first, some of the guests were afraid and hesitant to jump directly into the sea, and the cruise director gave them reassurance by jumping first to show that it was doable, and afterwards assisted guests who had jumped onto the sea.” 

Covering the costs

View of the blazing Sea Safari VII from a life-raft (Mike Day)
View of the blazing Sea Safari VII from a life-raft (Mike Day)

Once the captain had ensured that all guests and crew were safely evacuated, he had jumped into the sea to access one of the tenders, say the team, adding that a guest had confirmed that he had been last to leave – though this not been a point of contention. 

While the guests and crew got clear of the liveaboard in the two life-rafts and two tenders, as well as a Scuba Junkie boat, with assistance from nearby day-boats, the captain was said to have visited each of the day-boats to ensure that everyone was accounted for.

One of the crew had sustained a burns injury but is now said by the team to be recovering well in hospital.

The guests were taken to the Scuba Junkie resort to rest and recover before being taken to Labuan Bajo. “We accommodated them at the Laprima Hotel and covered their basic needs,” say the SSCT, contradicting Day’s contention that the operator had, as he said, “devolved all responsibility – no assistance, no compensation”.

“Sea Safari Cruises refunded the trip, offered some money in compensation and covered the guests’ basic needs including food, basic clothing, accommodation, transportation, passport fees and flights until they were back home,” insist the team, which has shown Divernet airline and hotel invoices to this effect. 

Because all the guests had been booked through Scuba Junkie, which had paid Sea Safari Cruises for the trip, it was considered preferable to have a “one-door communication system to avoid any potential miscommunication” say the team.

This meant that while payment for all the guests’ additional expenses and compensation had been made through Scuba Junkie, Sea Safari says it had taken responsibility for covering these costs itself. 

“We believe this part of the story is not known by the guests, which might imply that we were neglecting them,” say the team. “We also offered them complimentary liveaboard trips in the future if they opted to do so. It would be misleading to say that we devolved all responsibility.

“No amount of compensation can fully alleviate the distress, inconvenience and financial loss caused by this tragic event, but we are trying to provide the best of what we can offer in these difficult times.”

Total loss

Sea Safari VII had been the biggest of the five ironwood-hulled phinisi schooners run by Bali-based Sea Safari Cruises. “We have been operating since 1988 and we haven’t had any major accidents like this one,” the team told Divernet when asked about their safety record. “We have been abiding by boat safety regulations and had diligently done our annual dry-docking and maintenance.” 

The phinisi liveaboard Sea Safari VII before the fire
The phinisi schooner Sea Safari VII before the fire

Describing the liveaboard as “a steadfast companion on countless voyages”, they said that over the years it had “played host to countless memories, adventures and unforgettable experiences for our guests and crew alike. The loss of Sea Safari VII is not just a loss of a boat, but a loss of a dear friend and a treasured part of our Sea Safari Cruises family.

“What transpired was an unfortunate accident and the evacuation was done to the best of our crew and guests’ collective effort amid a frantic situation. As an operator, we acknowledge that we are not perfect, and there are always areas for improvements,” concede the SSCT. 

“At the end of the day, we are deeply grateful that everyone is safe. We are committed to learning from this experience and making comprehensive improvements to be better in the future.”

Also on Divernet: Oceanic liveaboard catches fire in Indonesia, Survivors speak after fatal Red Sea dive-boat fire, Dive-boat blazed, whale shark grabbed in Thailand, Blaze consumes Indo Siren liveaboard

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@dekkerlundquist5938
#ASKMARK Hello Mark, while out diving recently I talked to an experienced diver who was diving with twins but did not have any manifold on them, i.e. each cylinder had a first stage with a primary and an SPG. One cylinder had the low pressure inflator for his BC. What are the pros and cons of a manifold setup versus independent twins?

#scuba #scubadiving #scubadiver
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