Survivors speak after fatal Red Sea dive-boat fire

The blazing Sea Legend as seen from one of the dive RIBs
The blazing Sea Legend as seen from one of the dive RIBs

All but one of the divers and crew onboard Sea Legend managed to get clear of the liveaboard blazing off the Egyptian coast – but they were far from home and dry at that point

Details have been emerging about the fire that swept through the Red Sea liveaboard Sea Legend in Egypt last month, resulting in the death of one of its guests – and there has still been no official statement about that diver’s disappearance.

Sea Legend, part of the locally owned Dive Pro Liveaboards fleet, had sailed from Hurghada for the Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on a week-long trip on 17 February, with the incident occurring five days later. 

Many of the 17 dive guests were reported to have originally booked onto other liveaboards, but were informed by email a few days before departure that, because of “operational issues”, they were being transferred to Sea Legend. By this time they would already have paid for their flights or travelled to Egypt.

Built in 2019, the 42m steel-hulled liveaboard was built to accommodate 32 and equipped with two 6.5m dive RIBs. It had eight cabins below, four of these on the main deck between the kitchen and restaurant, two on the top deck and two suites.

Among the safety equipment listed by Dive Pro were emergency rafts, life-vests, fire alarm and fire extinguishers. Divernet readers might recall that Sea Legend replaced another liveaboard called Scuba Scene after that vessel itself caught fire in 2022, though that had been a temporary hire arrangement. 

Sea Legend at sea
The Hurghada-based Sea Legend liveaboard

The unnamed woman missing after the incident was reportedly a 50-year-old German mother of two, travelling alone. There were nine other German guests, along with two Italians, two Argentinians and one each from the USA, France and Singapore, plus the captain, 10 crew and two dive-guides.

Smell of smoke

Italian media outlet Lecce Prima spoke to the Italian couple, diving instructors Gennaro Palomba and Isabella Ruggeri, following the fire.

In the early morning at about 3.30am on 22 February Palomba, who had been sleeping in one of the main-deck cabins, said he had been woken by the smell of smoke coming, as he thought, from the kitchen towards the bow. 

He and Ruggeri went out to find that fire had broken out in the restaurant. With no crew in sight, he had raised the alarm.

Guests had assembled at the stern, conscious of the danger of fire reaching the dive-tank racks. Black smoke was being blown over them as the vessel continued to move forward, a factor that could have helped to feed the fire.

At one point a roll-call was conducted and, although this had indicated that someone was unaccounted for, this had been lost in the chaos of the evacuation, according the Italians. Subsequent reports have suggested that the presence of an extra crew-member not included on the official complement might have confused the issue. 

There were no life-rafts and apparently few life-jackets in evidence. Crew-members launched the two dive RIBs, with some difficulty because of high waves, strong wind and the vessel still moving. Guests had to take to the water to reach the boats.

Another of the guests spoke to Divernet about the experience on condition of anonymity. “Most of the passengers had been alerted to the fire either from the smell of smoke, or by other passengers knocking on their doors to wake them. Evacuation was chaotic and we left the burning boat within 10 minutes of the manual emergency alarm being sounded.

“As the red zodiac could not start its engine, it was tied to the white zodiac by rope so that it could be towed.”

Two boats in trouble

Fire and explosions on Sea Legend, as seen from the RIBs

“The two zodiacs were about 500m away from the burning boat when two explosions were heard and seen coming from the boat, which was completely in flames,” the guest told Divernet. “The sea was rough, making it difficult to navigate through the high waves in the dark.” 

It had been some time before the guests realised that a Mayday call might not have been made, and started calling for help on their mobile phones. 

“When we first called the Egyptian authorities for help from the zodiac, we mentioned that we were 3km from the shore, based on our best guess. Based on co-ordinates about an hour later at 5.15am, we were about 6km straight out from shore, with the current moving us from north to south,” said the guest. The nearest town was Hamraween, north of El Quseir and some 9km away at that point.

heading back to shore after the liveaboard fire
Slow progress: The unpowered red RIB under tow by the under-inflated white one

The working RIB had not been fully inflated from the start and had been taking on water and riding low. Making little progress, the two boats parted at around 6am, according to the guest, who had been on the incapacitated vessel.

The other boat headed for Hamraween in an effort to arrive before it was swamped – which it eventually was, as it neared a jetty at about 6.30am. “Passengers had to swim the last 200m to shore, and sustained cuts from the shallow reef.” 

Ambulance crew and police, along with reporters and photographers, had reportedly assembled on the jetty, watching as the survivors struggled ashore. 

Meanwhile the other RIB had been drifting while its occupants waited for help. “We were eventually rescued by the Egyptian Navy at around 6.45am, though that operation also put us in danger because they demanded that we climb an aluminium ladder onto the ship in very rough seas,” said the guest. 

“Several times crew-members and divers slipped and almost fell into the sea, or were crushed between the ship and zodiac. The attempt was abandoned only when the zodiac was thrown so hard against the Navy vessel that the ladder broke.”

The two Italian divers had found themselves on different boats, so neither had known for several hours whether their partner was OK. Only once everyone was reunited onshore did the guests realise that the German woman was missing, all having assumed that she must be on the other RIB. 

The questioning

According to the anonymous guest, the divers’ travails did not end once back on land. “We had a very unpleasant experience with the Egyptian police / investigators who were taking our statements of the incident,” Divernet was told. “Even though we were highly sleep-deprived and had just experienced this traumatic and fatal accident, there were no welcoming words nor any empathy shown by the authorities. 

“There was no proper introduction of the investigators, and only when we asked for their role did they mention that they worked for the Public Prosecution.”

This office is an independent arm of the judiciary. While initial inquiries might be conducted by police officers, the public prosecutors then take over investigations and seek the sworn and signed testimony of witnesses which they will later present as evidence in court.

With no interpreters available, it had been left to a Dive Pro representative, and later one from the tourism ministry, to translate and provide liaison between the guests and those interviewing them.

“We were instructed to write the specific line: ‘There is no criminal suspicion of causing the fire, and no one has been accused of causing the fire’,” said the guest. “Later, our English written statements and interview transcript were translated into Arabic, and we were instructed to sign off on the Arabic copy. 

“When a line-by-line translation was requested, the Arabic copy contained errors and misinterpretations, including the addition of new information that was not originally conveyed, and omissions of information originally included in our statements. 

“The police informed us that these reports would be sent to our embassies, but nothing has been received to date. There has also been no update from the authorities on whether a search and rescue effort was undertaken for the missing diver. 

“The process of taking police statements and filing the police reports for the lost passports was highly disorganised, inefficient and stressful. It took us the full day [22 February] to settle the paperwork.”

Getting home

Most of the passengers had been forced to leave clothing and other property behind, the Italians claiming that they had lost dive-gear, clothes, phones and other property worth as much as 20,000 euros. “We have physical damage: I struggle to walk, I have mini-fractures, while my husband is in shock and struggles to speak,” Rufferi, who had been on the powered RIB, told Lecce Prima

Dive Pro did provide clothing and essentials along with all-inclusive accommodation in Safaga for guests who had to sort out documentation for lost passports, before transferring them to their respective embassies in Cairo. Two Dive Pro representatives also accompanied the divers to the capital and helped them at the immigration office.

However the anonymous guest claimed that it had taken protracted negotiations to secure from the operator two nights’ accommodation in a cheap hotel in Cairo for 14 people (costing the equivalent of less than £400), plus cash to replace lost passports (£90) and £128 for meals and transport while in Cairo. 

Dive Pro also agreed to cover the air fares for divers who had missed their original flights, though no compensation payments were made for other lost property. 

“In hindsight, the surviving divers realised that many safety features and procedures were severely lacking on Sea Legend,” the guest told Divernet. “There was no mention of life-jackets during the boat safety briefing; fire alarms and smoke detectors in rooms were not working; and fire extinguishers were empty or not working.

“Crew did not sound the alarm to wake and gather all the passengers when the fire was first detected, leaving very little time for the evacuation; no life-jackets were distributed or used when we evacuated on the zodiacs; and there were no emergency flares. We also found out from Dive Pro that it did not have insurance for the Sea Legend.” 

Under investigation

The guests were informed by Dive Pro that Sea Legend had sunk following the fire, but said they had received no official word from the Egyptian authorities about its status – nor whether the missing diver’s body had been found. The cause of the blaze remains unconfirmed.

Divernet contacted Dive Pro Liveaboards to give its side of the story and respond to points made by guests, but a representative said that the operator was unable to do so until it had received the final report from the Public Prosecution Office, and could provide no time-frame for that. 

The Chamber of Diving & Water Sports (CDWS), the official representative for Egypt’s diving industry locally and internationally, investigates diving-related accidents but made clear to Divernet that it is “not the legal entity responsible for maritime vessel accidents”.

“We are very sorry for the sad accident and we share the mourning and sorrow for the unfortunate fatality and send our condolences to her family,” said a CDWS representative.


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