A safety video produced for Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara charter company that owned and operated the doomed Conception diving boat, reveals the close quarters of the vessel’s bunkroom and the awkward, narrow position of its escape hatch.
Thirty-four people perished in the downstairs sleeping quarters when a fire ignited early Labor Day in the galley above and blocked both the regular stairwell and the escape hatch. Authorities say they believe all of the victims died from smoke inhalation.
While the Conception was built to code and had passed recent safety inspections, investigators announced Thursday that all six of its crew were asleep at the time of the fire, an apparent violation of federal maritime law for small passenger boats that requires a roving “night watchman” to remain awake and patrol for fires and other dangers.
Santa Barbara photographer Ralph Clevenger created the safety video for all three Truth Aquatics boats. He said he finished it the day before the Conception disaster but after it had already embarked on its Channel Islands diving trip.
“This video is designed to run as a loop on the large TV in the dining area during the passenger boarding time before the boat leaves the harbor,” Clevenger said in an email. “Once the boat arrives at its destination and is anchored up the captain then gives an extensive safety briefing to all the passengers in person. At the end of this video there is a clip of a captain giving the morning safety briefing to the passengers on a one-day trip I was on recently.”
The video also shows the sundeck where the fire was first seen coming up from below by a crew member. The five sleeping behind the wheelhouse were forced to jump to reach the main deck below. One of the crew broke his leg in the mad scramble to save the passengers. The stairwell connecting the bunkroom to the galley is not visible in the film, but according to the vessel’s schematics is positioned in the galley between the main counter and coffee carafes.
During a tour of another Truth Aquatics boat whose layout is nearly identical to the Conception, a National Transportation Safety Board official said she was “taken aback” by the size and location of the emergency hatch. She noted how someone trying to escape the bunkroom would have to climb onto a third-tier bed, push open a wooden door, then heave themselves into the galley.
Clevenger and others have praised Truth Aquatics crews for diligently following safety protocols and delivering detailed passenger briefings every trip. They’ve said the Conception’s captain, Jerry Boylan, is among the most experienced and trusted commercial captains in the Channel.
Some former passengers, however, have stated that they were never told about the boat’s escape hatch and that they never received a full safety briefing. “I have no idea how we would have gotten out of that room in an emergency,” Josiah Wilcox told the Los Angeles Times.