When a fire flared aboard the dive boat Conception, anchored off the north side of Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day last year, 33 passengers and one crewmember lost their lives. Though the final report on the causes of the tragedy will not be published until October 20, the National Transportation and Safety Board released 104 documents compiled during its investigation, which has brought to light some new information, including that one galley hand reported he saw sparks fly when he plugged in his phone charger that night before going to bed.
On Sunday night, September 1, 2019, after a day of diving at Quail Rock, the passengers had plugged their wet electrical equipment — underwater flashlights, cameras, flashes, and strobes — as well as cellphones and tablets into a single power strip along the bench seats and aft (rear) bulkhead, according to crew statements.
Sometime before 3 a.m., the galley hand heard what sounded like a human voice yell, “Ahhh!”; he got up to check and saw the first signs of fire. He awakened the rest of the crew, who tried to get into the salon and to the passengers, but they were forced back by smoke and flame.
The captain, Jerry Boylan, sent the first distress call to the Coast Guard at 3:14 a.m. Because of the blanketing smoke, he only had time to radio their position in Platts Harbor and that 39 people were on board before jumping into the sea from the wheelhouse. The Coast Guard didn’t learn there was a fire until a second mayday call came from a nearby boat, the Grape Escape, at 3:29 a.m. By 6:58 a.m., the Conception had burned to the waterline and sunk.
The Fire and Explosions report noted several possible ignition sources for the devastating fire, including smoking materials possibly being thrown into a plastic trash can under the stairs and batteries being charged below deck.
The report disclosed a previous battery incident aboard the Vision, a boat with similar design to the Conception that was also owned by Truth Aquatics. During a dive trip in October 2018, a Vision passenger heard the battery for an underwater diving light hiss, pop, and ignite in the early morning. The Vision captain on that trip told investigators he’d reported the fire to Truth Aquatics’ owner, Glen Fritzler, but it is not written down in the trip’s documents, according to the reports.
The fire group further noted other potential safety issues, including the lack of a roving night watchman, emergency exits leading to the same compartment, battery devices left charging unattended overnight, the small size of the emergency exit, the flammability of interior materials, and the lack of regulations to require smoke detectors in all vessel compartments.
Just weeks after the Conception fire, the Coast Guard issued a warning to all passenger vessels that there was a potential fire hazard for lithium ion batteries and power strips. Legislation currently before Congress seeks to increase fire exits, mandate safety systems for battery charging, and upgrade fire alarm systems on small passenger boats.
This September 1, a one-year anniversary memorial service was held at the Santa Barbara Harbor. The day before, a crew had motored out to the north side of Santa Cruz Island carrying a boulder on which was engraved all 34 names of the victims. They lowered the boulder into the water where the Conception sank, and a remembrance ceremony took place the next day with family members and first responders.
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