Impromptu memorials went up immediately after the tragedy in 2019. On the one-year anniversary of the 'Conception' fire, the city will place a memorial at the breakwater. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Several remembrances are taking place this Wednesday, September 2, to mark the passage of one year since Santa Barbara grappled with the Conception tragedy out at Santa Cruz Island. A fire aboard the well-regarded dive boat, run by Truth Aquatics out of Santa Barbara Harbor’s Sea Landing, on a trip organized by another respected tour outfit — Worldwide Diving Adventures of Santa Cruz — erupted in the early morning hours on Labor Day in 2019, killing 34 of the 39 people aboard, reportedly smothered to death by the carbon monoxide from the fire, according to coroner reports.

A virtual ceremony at the harbor breakwater will be livestreamed early on Wednesday. Unveiled at the ceremony will be a boulder set with a plaque holding the names of the deceased; many were members of the diving community in the Bay Area. Some were family members, taking the three-day trip together to explore the underwater environs of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. One was a Conception crewmember, who bunked below in the passenger quarters. The ceremony can be seen on CityTV Channel 18 at 7 a.m. to allow participation and avoid potential COVID infections.

A larger boulder was placed offshore of Santa Cruz Island on Monday, in the location where the Conception sank, also bearing the details of the tragedy. A private trip to the site takes place on September 2 by victims’ family members and people who were among the first to respond to the tragedy occurring 27 miles offshore. 

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A third memorial will be set in Carpinteria, where the Chrisman California Islands Center will house the Santa Cruz Island Foundation at Linden and Carpinteria Avenue. Due to be completed in 2021, it will hold one of the propellers from the Conception mounted on a granite stela, engraved with the names of the deceased.

The fire is widely thought to have begun in the galley, where lithium ion batteries for cellphones, video and lighting equipment, and laptop computers were customarily charged on electrical outlet strips aboard the Conception. The dive boat, built in 1981 before such batteries or equipment had been invented, burned to the water line.

Bills in Congress cosponsored by Santa Barbara and Ventura representatives Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley, respectively, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, require older boats to update safety rules for passenger emergency exits, storage of lithium-ion batteries, and fire alarm and suppression systems to modern standards. Carbajal added his Small Passenger Vessel Safety bill to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual measure that sets spending for defense and other appropriations that has passed every year since it began in 1961. Carbajal is fighting to keep the passenger vessel bill in the NDAA, a spokesperson for his office said, and it is expected to remain.

Federal investigators with the National Transportation and Safety Board, FBI, Coast Guard, and ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) have been examining the ship’s remains for the past year. The NTSB issued a statement on August 31 that its board would consider its investigators’ conclusions on the Conception fire at its October 20 meeting. That meeting will be webcast at

Also awaiting the results of the investigation is the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office. As in any prosecution, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said, “We would need to see the completed investigation before considering whether any or what charges would be appropriate.” She added, “My heart aches for all the loved ones of all the victims. I’m sure they are still in agony. We remain committed to seeking justice for everyone involved.”

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