All six crew members of the Conception were asleep when the dive boat caught fire in the predawn hours of September 2, according to a preliminary report released today by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The finding is a major revelation in the investigation of the worst maritime disaster in modern California history. It confirms earlier reports that the Conception crew likely violated federal safety regulations covering small passenger vessels that require a roving “night watchman” to remain awake and patrol the boat for fires and other dangers.
The NTSB report, which offers the first full accounting of the disaster, states that “at the time of the fire, five crewmembers were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crewmember was asleep in the bunkroom.” A crewmember in the wheelhouse berth “was awakened by a noise,” the report says, and got up to investigate. “He saw a fire at the aft end of the sun deck, rising up from the salon compartment below. … As crewmembers awoke, the captain radioed a distress message to the Coast Guard.”
The crew attempted to access the salon and the passengers below, the report explains, but they were unable to use the ladder, which was on fire, so they jumped down to the main deck. One crew member broke his leg in the process. When they tried to access the salon and galley compartment through a window, they were overwhelmed by flames and thick smoke and were forced to jump overboard.
“Two crewmembers and the captain swam to the stern, reboarded the vessel, and opened the hatch to the engine room, and saw no fire.” The salon doors were blocked by fire, “so they launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water. They transferred to a recreational vessel anchored nearby (Grape Escape), where the captain continued to radio for help, while two crewmembers returned to the Conception to search for survivors around the burning hull.”
All 33 passengers and the single crewmember with them below deck perished. The boat’s surviving captain, Jerry Boylan, was not immediately available for comment.
The report contains clues but no determination of the cause of the fire. It only gives information about the NTSB investigation into safety aboard the Conception, including that its investigators would be reviewing documents collected from recent Coast Guard inspections. It does not explain the involvement of FBI and ATF agents, seen at Truth Aquatics’ offices, who are conducting their own investigation, NTSB spokesperson Eric Weiss said. Likewise, the Coast Guard is investigating the fire and today issued a safety bulletin about extension cords and charging lithium-ion batteries unsupervised.
Once the Conception is brought to the surface, it will be examined, the report released September 12 states. The NTSB effort will also include looking at regulations on “vessels of this type, year of build, and operation; early-warning and smoke-detection and alarm systems; evacuation routes; training; and current company policies and procedures.” The final report, which will contain causation, NTSB spokesperson Jennifer Homendy has said, is due in 12 to 18 months.