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NTSB: Fatal fire started on California dive boat as crew slept

Dec 2, 2019 01:31 PM
The dive boat Conception burns off the coast of California’s Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember died in the early morning fire, all of them trapped in the bunkroom below the main deck. The boat later sank.

Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office photo

The dive boat Conception burns off the coast of California’s Santa Cruz Island on Sept. 2. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember died in the early morning fire, all of them trapped in the bunkroom below the main deck. The boat later sank.

Shortly after 0300 on Sept. 2, a crewmember aboard the dive vessel Conception awoke to an unusual sound. He left his bunk on the ship’s upper level and saw the galley, on the main deck below, engulfed in flames.

The fire intensified as five crew searched for a way into the burning compartment, below which 34 people were trapped in a bunkroom on the lower deck. Smoke, heat and flames made those efforts impossible, the crew told National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators.

The five surviving crew ultimately abandoned the ship, which was anchored just off the north side of California’s Santa Cruz Island. The vessel later burned to the waterline. Thirty-four people died, 33 of whom were guests on a diving excursion in the Channel Islands. One victim was a crewmember sleeping in the passenger bunkroom.

In the days that followed the incident, officials from vessel owner Truth Aquatics and the surviving crew gave detailed interviews to the NTSB. The agency used these details to produce a preliminary report that does not include the probable cause. Jennifer Homendy, an NTSB board member, said that likely won’t be available for more than a year.

“I am 100 percent confident our investigators will determine the cause of this fire, why it occurred, how it occurred, and what is needed to prevent it from happening again,” she said.

Homendy noted the agency won’t wait until the final report to suggest possible regulatory changes to safeguard against a similar tragedy. “If we find, as we have many times, any gaps in safety regulations, we issue recommendations to strengthen them,” she said.

NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy and Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer tour the lower berthing area of Vision, a sister vessel to Conception, on Sept. 4 in Santa Barbara Harbor. Access to the galley above is via a narrow ladderwell and an emergency escape hatch.

NTSB photo

The Coast Guard, which has regulatory and enforcement authority over passenger vessels like Conception, has launched a Marine Board of Investigation into the incident separate from the NTSB inquiry. It also will release its own report on the case.

The 75-foot Conception was on the last day of a three-day diving excursion on the morning of the fire. The ship anchored in Platts Harbor on the north side of Santa Cruz Island less than 100 feet from shore. The NTSB said all six crewmembers were sleeping when the fire started, contrary to Coast Guard regulations.

Through its preliminary report and a series of media briefings, the NTSB has offered a glimpse of what happened based on crew accounts. Homendy said the investigation will work to confirm those details, which she described as harrowing.

Five crew were asleep in bunkrooms on the uppermost sundeck, which also contained the wheelhouse, when the fire was discovered. The crewman who awoke to the noise and noticed the flames also roused crew asleep nearby. They quickly realized the interior of the vessel was inaccessible.

“Unable to use the aft ladder, which was on fire, the crewmembers jumped down to the main deck … and tried to access the salon and galley compartment,” the NTSB said in its preliminary report issued Sept. 12. The report notes that one crewmember broke his leg jumping to the main deck.

The galley, the report continued, “was fully engulfed by fire at the aft end and by thick smoke in the forward end, through a forward window. Unable to open the window and overwhelmed by smoke, the crew jumped overboard.”

Conception is shown moored in Santa Barbara with the two other boats in the Truth Aquatics fleet, Vision and Truth, in a photo from the company’s website.

Courtesy Truth Aquatics

Two crewmembers and the captain, identified in media reports as Jerry Boylan, swam to Conception’s stern and reboarded the vessel. They opened a hatch to the engine room and saw no evidence of fire. Flames blocked access to the salon through the aft doors, so the three launched a skiff and retrieved two crew still in the water. They then motored to another vessel, Grape Escape, which was anchored nearby. Two crewmembers returned to Conception in search of survivors in the water but found none, the report said.

At some point after the crew awoke, an unidentified crewmember aboard Conception made a frantic mayday call to the Coast Guard over VHF Channel 16. The caller attempted to provide location, the number of people on board and other details during the garbled transmission. The radio went quiet soon after the caller said, “I can’t breathe.”

Conception continued burning for several hours and later sank in about 60 feet of water. The wreckage was inverted on the seafloor. Homendy made it clear that investigators wanted the vessel raised intact, and salvage crews successfully lifted the hull in one piece on Sept. 12.

Authorities have not discussed possible causes of the fire, but some key details have emerged as a result of the investigation thus far. For instance, Homendy said the crewman who first awoke to the fire reported he did not hear a smoke detector sounding anywhere on the vessel. According to the NTSB, there were two “locally sounding” smoke detectors overhead in the lower bunkroom.

Conception was not required under existing codes to have a hard-wired fire detection system, NTSB officials said, and it lacked sprinklers, which also were not required. It passed its most recent Coast Guard inspection in February. Initial NTSB interviews revealed no mechanical or electrical issues with the boat before the fire.

On Sept. 4, Homendy and other NTSB investigators toured another Truth Aquatics vessel, Vision, that has a nearly identical layout to Conception. An NTSB video shows investigators descending from the salon/galley on the main deck to the bunkroom on a narrow stairway forward on the starboard side. The cramped compartment has space for 46 people in single and double bunks stacked two and three high, with a narrow path separating rows of berths.

The escape hatch on Vision is located along the centerline and opens to the aft portion of the galley. Footage appears to show the hatch accessible from one or more bunks. According to the Los Angeles Times, Homendy expressed concern about the accessibility of the hatch. Vision is 5 feet longer than Conception but has a similar layout.

Conception’s galley was equipped in typical fashion, with electric appliances and electrical systems to support that equipment. Homendy noted the possibility that photography equipment and personal electronics were charging in the vessel’s outlets.

“We are not ruling out any possible ignition sources. We are focused on everything, including the electrical system and wiring,” she told reporters during a media briefing.

The wooden-hulled Conception entered service in 1981. It was powered by twin 550-hp Detroit Diesel engines and had at least one 55-kW genset. It could hold up to 1,600 gallons of fuel, although it is not clear how much fuel was aboard on the morning of the fire.

Truth Aquatics of Santa Barbara, Calif., has offered overnight diving excursions since its founding in 1974. Current owner Glen Fritzler has declined to comment specifically on the accident, noting the ongoing federal investigations. However, in a prepared statement he said that he and the company were “utterly crushed (and) devastated” by the incident, and they are committed to getting answers.

“Our lives have been irreversibly changed by this tragedy and the sorrow it has caused,” said the statement on the company’s website. “The families and friends of the victims and survivors are now, and forever, in our thoughts and prayers.”

Court documents show Truth Aquatics and the Fritzler family took steps in the days after the fire to limit the company’s liability and financial damages. A Sept. 5 filing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles asks for “exoneration from or limitation of liability” from the incident. The filing describes the vessel as “seaworthy” and “tight, staunch and strong.”

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