Unimaginable tragedy struck September 2, when the 'Conception' dive boat caught fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, killing all 33 of its passengers and a crew member. | Credit: Ventura County FIre Department

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office has released the final coroner’s reports for the 34 victims of the Conception diving boat disaster. The chartered vessel sank in the middle of the night on September 2, 2019, after catching fire off Santa Cruz Island. All 33 of its passengers and one crew member were killed in California’s deadliest maritime incident since 1865. The captain and four crew members survived.

Smoke inhalation was listed as the cause of death for all 34 victims, “which created lethal levels of carbon monoxide in their blood,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Erik Raney. The extensive fourth- and fifth-degree burns found on their bodies occurred post-mortem, he said. DNA and tattoos were used to make most of the identifications.

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Details from the reports suggest some of the passengers had attempted to escape the Conception’s below-deck bunk room before they were overwhelmed by the smoke or carbon monoxide of the fast-moving fire. Recovery divers found one victim still clutching a cell phone. Another held a flashlight. Many of the passengers were wearing shoes or sandals. Others wore jackets. 

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) asserted that all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. that Labor Day weekend, despite commercial safety regulations requiring one crew member to remain awake on night watch. The final NTSB report is expected to be published later this year. 

Raney explained that the coroner’s investigation could not determine where exactly the victims were located in the bunk room at the time of their deaths. “When the Conception sank and overturned, the victims were displaced from the locations in which they died,” he said. “Additionally, due to the intense fire, the majority of the boat’s interior structures were destroyed.” During its investigation, the NTSB commented how difficult and narrow the access was to the bunk room’s escape hatch in the ceiling.

A surviving crew member and the Conception’s designer both speculated soon after the disaster that the fire was perhaps sparked by a faulty lithium-ion battery charging at an electrical outlet in the galley above, where cell phones and cameras had been plugged in overnight. A week after the incident, the Coast Guard sent a bulletin advising small passenger vessels to be aware of the fire danger of power strips and lithium-ion batteries.

Four victims’ families have since filed wrongful-death claims against the Santa Barbara–based operator of the Conception, Truth Aquatics, owned by Glen and Dana Fritzler. They alleged a “litany of safety lapses” were responsible for the deaths.

California legislators last year proposed stronger federal safety regulations for passenger vessels. Improved escape pathways, better fire detection systems, and lithium-ion battery storage were emphasized.

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