After spending two hours meeting with grieving families, federal investigators spoke with reporters on Wednesday afternoon on the progress of their examination of the Conception and the inferno that engulfed it early Monday morning. Jennifer Homendy, a spokesperson with the National Transportation Safety Board, made clear the importance of answering the families’ questions over the fate of their loved ones, 34 of whom died belowdecks off Santa Cruz Island: “We made a commitment to them, and it’s why we do our job, that their questions will be answered.”
On their first full day working this tragedy — word of which reached the mainland around 3:15 a.m. on Monday when a garbled Mayday call was overheard by the Coast Guard’s Long Beach/Los Angeles watchstanders — the NTSB team interviewed four crewmembers, including Captain Jerry Boylan, for several hours each, receiving good cooperation, Homendy said. Alcohol tests had come up negative, she said, and toxicology tests were in process. Her team also talked with the owner of the Conception, Glen Fritzler of Truth Aquatics, and toured the Vision, a boat built similarly to the Conception. “We wanted to lay eyes on the vessel,” Homendy said, “to get a sense of the layout.”
The current layout of the destroyed ship is being determined underwater, 60-65 feet down, with side-scan sonar to map it before it is moved. Video and digital images are also being completed as plans are underway to raise and salvage the Conception, Homendy said. With more interviews scheduled tomorrow with the remaining crewmember, people aboard the Good Samaritan vessels who rescued the crew, Coast Guard personnel, and first responders, Homendy added that documents to be examined included everything from 9-1-1 documents to training, maintenance, and inspection records.
Though larger boats must have fire-sprinkler systems, Coast Guard Captain Jason Neubauer explained, the Conception was of a class that did not require them. Neubauer described the location of the hatch, which was in the “ceiling” to the aft, or back, of the sleeping quarters below deck. The stairs were in the forward part of the bunk room. Both exits went up to the salon and galley, respectively, which were basically a large room on the main deck. According to the information assembled publicly, both were apparently blocked with flame when five of the six-member crew, who slept above the galley/salon in a wheelhouse, became aware of the fire and escaped overboard. The sixth crewmember had been bunked down with the passengers.
Homendy clarified that the preliminary report, to be issued in 10 days to two weeks, would contain factual information only. The final report, which she said yesterday would determine the cause of the fire “100 percent,” would be finished in 12-18 months.