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June 23, 2005

Diving the Thistlegorm: A Fatal Accident on the Red Sea

Sharm el Sheikh/Ras Mohammed, Egypt

Thursday, June 23, 2005:

This isn't the happiest of posts and I'm writing it more as a cautionary tale than for the sake of remembering something I stand little chance of forgetting. I saw a diver on my boat suffer critical injuries and die despite efforts to save him. I'm only thankful that it wasn't somebody I knew personally. I considered omitting this post for a number of reasons, among them the fact that I think these sorts of first-hand account accident stories run the risk of sounding cliche, over-dramatized, and/or disrespectful to (and exploitative of) the victim and the victim's family. Because of that, I have tried to keep things as factual and straightforward as possible, but I cannot keep from interjecting my own opinions regarding what took place.

As for the title of this entry, I chose it not out of a desire to be sensational but because the terms in it seem the most likely to turn up this account of the incident on Google or another web-engine if you run a search for diving at the Thistlegorm and/or accidents there or in the Red Sea in general. If somebody stumbles on this in an effort to find Red Sea diving information and takes it as a warning, I'll be content. (You can e-mail me at if you have any specific questions.)

I may spend some time editing and adjusting this entry, as I am not sure I am content with it yet.


On Wednesday night I took a shared shuttle-bus from Dahab to the docks at Sharm el Sheikh. My friend Adam, a British dive master, was with me and there were about nine or ten other people on the bus with us as well. The divers came from different hotels and had signed up for the trip with different dive shops. Each dive shop assigned it's group of divers a separate dive guide for the trip, which was arranged through the Blue Hole Travel Agency, the owner of the large (perhaps 50 foot) dive boat we were to use.

The group included Dan, a Londoner in his mid-20s; a Scandinavian dive instructor who I will call "Otto" (I do not recall his name but would not mention it or his exact nationality even if I knew them); three Polish tourists including a couple in their early 30s and an immense, loud and rotund man of about 45; a polite and quiet French couple in their 50s with a teenage son; and "Sam," an Egyptian dive instructor who was assigned to lead Adam, Dan and myself on our dives. I believe that there may have been another diver or two on the boat, though I am fuzzy on this. In any event, if there were any other people, their presence was completely irrelevant.

We reached Sharm's docks at approximately 1 AM on Thursday morning. The group received a brief run-down on plans for the next morning and from there we went about setting up and double-checking most of our dive equipment. After that it was time for bed. It was important to get some rest, as the boat would be leaving the docks at 4 AM to make the nearly 4-hour trip to the site where the Thistlegorm, a massive British cargo ship (an "armed freighter," as it is often described), was sunk by German planes in 1941, taking hundreds of men and a hefty stock of planes, guns, jeeps and ammunition to the floor of the sea.

Although we had been told that our boat would be fairly luxurious, with decent sleeping facilities, we found out on arrival that it lacked proper bunks and rooms for sleeping. There was a large deck cabin with cushioned benches and an upper deck with partial shelter that also featured some padded areas one could lie down on. They would have to make do.

The problems quickly became evident. The heat was stifling, particularly in the lower cabin. As Sharm's docks are always crowded, even at night, even in the off-season (albeit the end of the off-season), there was a steady stream of noise from other boats. Rock music, kids crying, even some dogs barking. Worst of all was the constant hum of engines and generators. But the real problem was the little mosquitos. Hordes of them, bordering on Biblical swarms of them.

In the scorching desert? Out on the water?


My surprise quickly gave way to annoyance, then anger. Nobody had told us about being eaten alive due to a lack of real shelter (even the deck cabin was infested) and, considering how bad the problem actually was, I absolutely felt and still feel that they should have. A simple "bring bug-spray" would have sufficed. It is simply impossible for the dive shops or Blue Hole to have been ignorant of the mosquitos: They ran this package trip with great frequency and surely more than a few westerners would have come back from it covered in bites and fuming about their inability to sleep under such conditions.

But in Egypt as in plenty of other places, there are no guarantees and certainly no warranties. Promises of luxury and comfort amount to nothing. Once cash has changed hands, all bets are off. Sadly that seemed to be one of the major, pervading lessons learned on this trip, and at the cost of somebody's life. In the end, I would feel that diving out of Sharm revolves around that lesson and little else. (More on this later and in another post.)

Why am I complaining about relatively minor issues like the mosquitos and the noise and the lack of real sleeping quarters when, although they weren't explicitly promised they were (in foolish, over-indulged western tourist-talk) strongly implied? Because I very honestly believe that the very limited amount of sleep most people got did not help us to be an alert group of divers or, for that matter, an alert group of divers and dive professionals. This is all minor in relation to everything else that ultimately happened; few fatal accidents in diving can be blamed on fatigue alone. Nevertheless, I think the conditions contributed to everything else. I'll never know how much but I wonder.

On the top deck Adam and I struggled to get some sleep, along with the French and the Polish. Using blankets in such an intensely damp heat was a suffocating proposition but we were getting dozens of bites so I pulled out my light travel sleep-sheet and tried to cover myself with it completely. Keeping my head exposed wasn't possible; the mosquitos were biting my face and tried to fly up my nose or into my ears.

With the sheet over me I managed to doze for 5 or 10 minutes at a time but got less than an hour's worth of sleep when the boat motors roared to life and we finally started moving at around 5 AM, with the first hint of daylight (you need daylight to boat near Sharm, otherwise you will hit a reef and sink as plenty of wrecks did and as one idiot-run dive boat just did on an early morning in mid-July; there were no injuries and I mourn for the reef more than I do for the boat's owners).

Although the noise and the odd splash of cold salt water over the deck weren't the best background against which to rest, I think most people (including myself) finally managed to grab a couple of hours of sleep. When I woke up it was perhaps 6:30 and the red sun and full silver moon stood across from each other in the clear blue sky. Several miles away the jagged barren cliffs of the desert rose from the brilliant turqoise water. The water around us looked like a patchwork quilt of different shades of blue and aqua-marine; we were navigating through what seemed like a maze of reefs jutting up from the deep.

Shortly before we reached the dive site we were called for a breakfast of toast, bread, an egg and coffee (sort of). I had several cups of bitter black nescafe before I finally shook off my weariness.

As we ate, the different groups met with their dive leaders to discuss the dives. Egyptian Sam had been assigned to lead me and Adam (later Dan was added to our group). I remember that when he heard that I had my PADI "rescue diver" certification and that Adam was a dive master, he said "Great! We'll have some good dives," meaning that he wouldn't have to chaperone any relative novices or cut the dive short because somebody was guzzling air at twice the rate of everyone else.

I am not sure who was leading the Polish group. It might have been one of the possible mystery divers I mentioned earlier or it could have been the large rotund guy who had spent most of the night sitting on the top deck in nothing but a speedo and slapping mosquitos on his rug-covered belly and thighs as he hollered loudly to Krakow or Warsaw on his cell phone (they might have heard him without the cell phone, such was the consideration for others that he displayed). As for the French family, the lanky blond Scandinavian instructor, Otto, gave them their briefing. I believe --- though I am not sure --- that it was in French.

The plan was relatively simple: We would do two dives at the wreck in our respective groups. The first dive would take us around the outside perimeter and over the ship while the second dive would involve entering one of the enormous cargo holds to see the military equipment that was lost along with so many British lives.

We were among the first of the many boats to reach the site of the Thistlegorm that day. As we went about checking over our gear in preparation for kitting up, Sam dove down to tie the boat's lines to the Thistlegorm. This is standard practice, I found out; Day in and day out, all of the many dive boats line up over the wreck and moor themselves to its decaying hull and then, when there isn't enough space, one another. Over time all of the pressure exerted on the Thistlegorm's frame is going to take a very serious toll and I will not be surprised when a story finally appears in the news regarding a structural collapse that traps or crushes divers who are in the ship's hold and ruins much or all of the site. Until then divers are happy to dive and operators are happy to cash in. The Thistlegorm has almost legendary status these days as THE wreck in the world to dive. Lost for years before it was discovered by Jacques Cousteau, its days are most likely limited. Over-exploitation will eventually wreck this wreck forever. (Note that I didn't have this knowledge or viewpoint when I signed up for the dives; still, even if I had known about the impact divers and dive boats have on the site I cannot honestly say that I absolutely would not have gone.)

When Sam came back up he indicated that there were "very strong currents" and that upon entering the water the divers would need to descend very quickly down one of the lines tied to the Thistlegorm, hanging on to it as they went. After this quick briefing the divers broke off into their respective groups. As I reached for my wetsuit, Sam told me that I could wait a little bit longer if I wanted to; our group would be going into the water last.

Things passed very quickly after that. As other dive boats reached the site and moored to the Thistlegorm nearly adjacent to our boat, a flurry of activity was taking place on the crowded back deck. Crewmen were scurrying back and forth, assisting divers with equipment. People were kitting up. Adam and I had put most of our equipment on and stood looking out at the other boats and at a small semi-inflatable that was scooting around the water nearby as part of another diving outfit. I wasn't paying strict attention to exactly what was happening with the other groups of divers. However, I knew that they were going in before us and that we were due in the water in perhaps another three minutes or so. I didn't actually see any of the other divers enter the water but from where I stood looking out on the water I assumed that they were or were about to start doing so.

Then, above the sounds of people, motors, waves, I heard a strangulated scream. It came from the surface of the water not far from where I was standing. Sam and a few other people ran to the side of the boat, looked out, and began yelling for help. Adam and I rushed over, wetsuits and tanks on, and watched as the group at the back struggled to pull a man onto the rear deck. He was covered in blood and limp, unconscious. His wetsuit was torn in numerous places.

Stunned, I began to remove my tank/BCD jacket. As I did so the Scandinavian instructor, Otto, climbed out of the water and rushed over to the side of the victim. Adam quickly took charge amid the confusion, yelling to a number of people crowded at the rear to clear the area. One of the crew rushed to inform the captain and other crew members of the situation. Adam told another to get the oxygen and first aid kits. Sam and most of the other crew looked shocked as they stood nearby.

I came forward to see what I could do. I'd learned CPR and first aid during my time in Zanzibar, I just hadn't expected to ever have an opportunity to have those skills tested and certainly not so soon. Because PADI's protocols dictate that the more experienced (and more highly trained) divers are to call the shots, I asked Sam, Otto and Adam what I could do. Clearly panicked and not very adept at English, Otto asked me to get into the water with just my wetsuit and mask to signal to some other divers in the water that they should get back on the boat. I didn't know there were any other divers in the water or who they were. In fact I, like a number of others on the boat, didn't know that divers from our boat had entered the water and assumed that the victim was from another boat. This wasn't the case.

While I was getting my mask and wondering whether it was wise to jump into the water when it was unclear what had happened to the victim, the other divers surfaced and began to climb up the rear ladder (this was a relief because I was very reluctant to jump in). One of them was the French woman. The other was her son. As they climbed up the ladder, oblivious to what was happening and why their instructor hadn't met them on the descent rope as he had told them he would, they saw the victim. The boy immediately broke into tears while his mother rushed to take her equipment off and help the rescue effort. It turned out that she was a doctor. The victim, I now realized as I looked closer, was her husband and the boy's father.

Resting on his back, covered in blood, he was in terrible shape. As the oxygen kit was assembled, Otto and the doctor began cutting away the badly shredded wetsuit with a knife. The main injuries were already apparent, however, and I don't want to give more than the briefest indication of just how severe they were. The man's right ankle was cut to the bone from mid-calf to the bottom of the foot. Far worse, a large deep gash ran from just above the victim's nose diagonally across the length of his right forehead to the hairline. If you touch your own forehead you will immediately understand what this means without any more explanation. With the wetsuit peeled away, two large bruises could be seen on the victim's chest. Many people present assumed these were scars from previous surgery but they were not. Only the man's BCD vest (sitting shredded on the side) had kept him from being cut open here as well.

As soon as the lines to the Thistlegorm were cut, the boat began to speed back to Sharm.

Oxygen treatment began. The victim was breathing and had a heartbeat. He was bleeding everywhere, however. It is fairly pointless to second guess the events that took place but when I asked the doctor and Otto whether I should start gathering material to dress the wounds, they told me that I should not. Nor should I get cushions to raise the victim's legs or a blanket to cover him with (this is a standard part of treating victim shock). I now believe that this was a mistake caused by pychological shock/denial regarding the actual severity of the injuries suffered. While it seemed fortuitous that the victim's wife was a doctor, I do not know what her specialization was and I do not think she was immune to the effects of shock. This is perfectly understandable, however. I think Otto was in shock as well; it turns out that he had dragged the victim back to the boat (I now believe that he was the one who screamed, at the moment he reached the water's surface) and he was probably seeing his career flash before his eyes and feeling extraordinarily guilty (more on this later). But as the least experienced person there, I don't want to claim I knew my stuff better than they did or that I had any special knowledge or revelation that would have ultimately made a difference. I think we should have tried to apply a tourniquette and dress the head wound and can't see the reasons for not doing so. That said, I do not think the victim would have lived (and if he had, though its not my business to say it, I question what state he would be in).

The oxygen kit wasn't well kept. It was leaking air and I had to hold it still and keep the tube pressed tightly against the tank while the doctor and Otto administered oxygen and monitored the patient's breathing and heart rate, assisted by Adam. Few of the crew did anything, including Sam (though to be fair, he was the one calling for medical help). They were stunned and many of them kept away from the scene. Although there wasn't much left for any of them to do, the impression I had (and Adam too) was that if there were something for them to do, they weren't well trained enough to do it. As for the Polish group, they went to the top deck as soon as the victim was pulled onboard. They never came down and never offered to lift a finger. The expression the woman had on her face as events unfolded was absolutely unforgettable. It said: "Great, my trip here is ruined."

From time to time the doctor, Adam and Otto would turn the patient over and douse him with water to try to clear the blood pooling on his forehead. Adam would ocassionally stick his finger into the man's mouth to check that his airway was clear for breathing. Although he wasn't conscious, the patient was convulsing periodically, making it more difficult to keep the oxygen mask on (the utility of which was, to my mind, questionable).

As oxygen treatment continued (without first aid), Sam came over to mention that emergency medical services in Sharm had been contacted and that a very fast rescue speedboat was on the way. "It will be here in 20 minutes," he said. This seemed improbable. It was in fact wildly inaccurate and I can't help but wonder if the misinformation caused the doctor and Otto to believe that the situation would soon be out of their hands and that the rescue medical workers could deal with bandaging and other first aid treatment as soon as they arrived.

Part of the reason I said that I believed other people were in some degree of shock is because all during the first 15 or 20 minutes, people were repeating things like "this isn't life-threatening" and "this could be worse" and even "this is superficial" (the doctor did not say any of this, however). It was wishful thinking brought on by an inability to face the facts. (Yet again, I think this caused us to neglect administering first aid treatment. And yet again I seriously doubt it ultimately mattered.)

It wouldn't be until hours later that the cause of the injury was known --- although the exact circumstances would never be fully clear. A few people let their imaginations run wild and believed that there had been a shark attack. But most of us knew immediately from the sight of the victim that he had been caught in a propeller and possibly hit by a boat as well. The only question was whether it was one of the massive propellers on our boat or the smaller propeller of the semi-inflatable that had been in the water and dangerously close to us when the divers began their entry. Otto was able to confirm that it was the propeller of our own boat. From the severity of the injuries, this was really the only possibly explanation. Somehow, we will never know exactly how, the victim entered the water only to quickly be caught in the still-running propeller of the boat. The propeller is never supposed to be on when divers are in the water. Although these kinds of injuries are rare, they are almost always extremely serious (fatal).

Minutes passed. Ten, twenty, twenty-five, thirty. The boat continued to make full speed for Sharm, but Sharm was a long way off. Otto, the doctor and Adam continued to administer oxygen and monitor the patient while I did a small part in assisting. The crew stood far back or sat in the cabin. The Polish remained on the deck above. Dan from London was in the cabin trying to comfort the French couple's teenage son (he was perhaps 14); Dan would come out ocassionally, eyes red, and ask for me for an honest prognosis, then go back inside and say things were "ok." In some ways he had the most difficult job of anybody.

There was no sign of a rescue boat. All during this time the patient was losing blood.

After thirty or so minutes I watched as Otto and the doctor began to administer CPR. The patient had stopped breathing and his heart had probably stopped as well. It was at this point that I knew he almost certainly wouldn't survive. The chances of reviving him were slim, particularly since the problem was loss of blood.

It was mainly Otto who gave the patient CPR. He knew what he was doing and he did it without resting and for an extraordinarily long period of time, despite the fact that he had no barrier and was dealing with a person covered in blood. The doctor would ocassionally assist with giving breaths as well. She seemed to be made of steel but would periodically look up and gaze toward the cabin with real concern.

"Where is the boat?" Otto or the doctor would ask from time to time. And I would get up and head to the bow to look out on a clear blue sea spotted with a few dive boats but nothing else.

It was perhaps an hour before a rescue boat finally arrived. Small and loud, with three men on it, it sped around us in several circles before tying up to the rear. It had been between twenty-five and thirty-five minutes since CPR had started and I knew already that the patient had died. Nevertheless, with incredible energy, the doctor and Otto had continued to work on him, hoping for a miracle.

The head paramedic on board is perhaps the most highly-trained rescuer working in the Egyptian Red Sea. He was trained in the US and has a much higher level of knowledge than the other Egyptian-trained rescuers working in the area (so he says, at any rate). His people-skills were lacking, however, and unaware that family of the deceased were nearby he asked how long CPR had been conducted and immediately began screaming:

"So he's dead! He's been dead for half an hour!"

Fortunately, I don't think the doctor's son heard this above the engines from where he sat in the cabin. As for the doctor, she shook her head quietly.

The paramedic began to ask questions of the crew and others. Otto's English was poor and I had to help out in several misunderstandings. We then gathered up what pieces of the dive equipment we could, as well as the family's items, and moved them to the rescue boat, where the other rescuers were moving the deceased. Within several minutes the doctor led her son out of the cabin and got into the rescue boat along with Otto (the paramedic asked me and Adam if we would answer questions upon our return to the docks in Sharm). The rescue boat soon sped off ahead of us.

It was a long ride back. Sam, Adam, Dan, members of the crew and myself --- we sat in the cabin and talked and chain smoked, but mostly just sat. Finally a few of us went up on the roof where the Polish group were lounging around obliviously, never saying a word.

Several hours later, we reached Sharm. The paramedic and Otto were sitting at a small police booth at the entrance to the docks. Several Egyptian police or military authorities (I've never been able to really tell the difference, even after seeing so many) stood around a desk where the head officer was taking down notes. Adam and I came over to listen and wait to give our statements. Sam and a few crewmembers were on hand as well.

The officer asked a question in Arabic and the paramedic translated it for Otto. Beforehand, the paramedic swore he would translate everything word for word, but I thought Otto should have asked if he could have an attorney before answering anything. That said, I wasn't going to take on that role or give any advice. Despite his heroic rescue efforts, I thought Otto was partially responsible for the accident because, according to the Egyptian officer, there was a signal that Otto was supposed to give the crew to indicate that they should turn the motor off; he apparently failed to give it before diving.

A number of questions were asked. They seemed an effort to trap Otto into a statement that he was negligent. There were also some no-brainer questions regarding whether Otto had any dispute with the deceased. I thought they were in bad taste but they are probably standard questions.

In short, Otto indicated that he dove in first, followed by the deceased and, a minute later, the doctor and the couple's son. As Otto was watching the latter two enter the water, he turned and saw the victim caught up in the propeller, which was on. Otto didn't see how the victim became caught, but swam over and pulled him out and up to the surface. The authorities continued to question why Otto thought the motor was off and why he didn't know that there was a signal he was supposed to give to the crew (this is supposedly a rule for diving in Ras Mohammed and all dive guides are supposed to follow this procedure for obvious reasons).

My impression (uninformed as to the actual facts and regulations regarding dives out of Sharm) was that Otto was culpable to some extent. However, Otto was also following the lead of the crew and Sam (who had many more dives at the site). They all knew he was entering the water. To the extent anybody had any doubts about whether it was time to dive, they certainly didn't express them when they had the chance. What it all came down to in the end was a complete and utter lack of controls. There wasn't any single person taking responsibility for the divers or diving. It wasn't the captain, it wasn't a crewmember on the back deck, it wasn't one of the dive guides. Everybody was doing his own thing and nobody was coordinating. On every other boat diving trip I've been on, the captain of the boat or a dive guide (with the captain at hand) has given the final OK before diving. That didn't seem to happen here (the boat was much bigger and the captain was 12 or 15 meters away from the deck and facing away from it, but that doesn't mean there is an excuse for the lack of control).

I had a sense that the Egyptian authorities were looking to blame the foreign dive instructor and absolve the local Egyptian crew and dive guide. Perhaps they all knew each other. Perhaps they are related. I am not saying Otto shouldn't take a large degree of the blame, only that he wasn't alone in the mess. I felt that the presence of the crew during the questioning kept Otto from being able to really defend himself.

In short, the investigation seemed somewhat farcical, half-hearted, unconcerned. Perhaps its because the authorities and paramedic see this kind of thing too often. I am sure that they do. In the end, I suspect that Otto might lose his instructor status and spent a lot of time dealing with the Egyptian authorities. I suspect that the crew will continue work as usual, perhaps after a reprimand by the company. I cannot confirm any of this, but its a strong hunch.

After answering some questions we drove back to Dahab. The Polish chatted amongst themselves. Dan, Sam, Adam and I just sat still. When Adam and I reached the Divers House at about 3:30 PM we found Mohammed standing around and looking surprised to see us. In fact, nobody had called to tell him or his boss (who seems to have a temper) what had happened. He was clueless. Nobody on the boat or with the travel agency wanted to be the bearer of bad news, apparently. Better to let us tell them.


In the end, as I put the final touches on this entry more than a month after the accident, my recurrent thoughts about the experience have long since passed but my anger with the dive operator(s) and crew really hasn't. I know this is a cliche recital here, but when diving is done with a competent group of experienced professionals, including not just the dive guide but the boat captain and crew and the company managing the whole affair, it is a relatively safe sport (though there is always some risk involved as in most any other). However, when people take short-cuts in order to make money, things fall apart. The rag-tag organization of the dive trip, in which different divers were thrown in with different guides who in turn worked with a boat crew that might have been thrown together overnight for all I could tell, resulted in a lack of cohesion and, above all else, a lack of controls and observance of protocols. Nobody was clearly in charge of the show. There was no top-down control in evidence. The dive boat took people out and the dive guides took people into the water. Communication between the guides and the crew seemed minimal --- and was surely compounded by the language barrier (Otto's English was barely intermediate and most of the crew members' English was barely existent). This clearly wasn't a group that worked together and developed and practiced standard procedures together. It was a mercenary team of strangers. As a result, corners were cut.

I think that there are many operations of this sort working out of Sharm. They work like a football team that has just been thrown together. Nobody can agree on who the coach is and the players know that when the game is over, they will just get shuffled to new teams again. The team never bonds, never establishes decent plays and has little loyalty. They're bored and tired and don't really like what they're doing anyway. In fact, most are only playing because their cousin or uncle or brother or nephew is a partial owner of the team. This reminds me of what John, an Australian instructor I met in Zanzibar, told me about Red Sea diving in general: "Every guy with a camel owns a dive shop down there. His brother probably owns the shop nextdoor."

Final disclaimer: I don't know everything and I didn't see everything. What I have written combines what I saw and remember seeing and what I heard from a number of different people. My opinions are only my opinions and this isn't necessarily the whole truth or only truth.

If you dive out of Sharm, be careful and don't rely on your instructor or the crew of the boat to look our for your safety and well-being. I've tried to figure out what happened to that poor Frenchman when he entered the water and while a number of ideas have crossed my mind (current, inattention, boat movement) there is no way of ever knowing. What is certain is that when he was told it was safe to jump, he believed it really was safe. Most people would have done the same thing. Don't.

Posted by Joshua on June 23, 2005 04:00 PM
Category: Egypt (Again)
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