The evolving story of the Conception dive boat got another cupful of heartbreak Thursday morning when the Los Angeles Times broke the story that the FBI had a video recording from the bunkroom where 34 people died when a fire broke out on September 2, 2019.
Some family members of the victims who had viewed the video spoke with Times reporter Richard Winton about what they’d seen: Apparently 24 seconds long, the video showed smoke gathering along the ceiling and beginning to fill the room as a fire alarm sounds. The scene is calm initially but becomes increasingly desperate before cutting out.
The investigation reports state a fire had quickly spread in the galley salon overhead. The bunkroom was belowdecks, with the two ways out: a set of stairs and a narrow escape hatch, both ending at the galley engulfed in flames. The captain, Jerry Boylan, had sent a mayday call but had abandoned ship with the crew.
For Susana Solano Rosas, the video told her nothing new. She had read the coroner’s reports and already knew that her three daughters had their cell phones in their hands and shoes on their feet, preparing for a rescue or to find their way out. She said she’d watched the short video panel by panel, hoping to catch a glimpse of her children or their father, “Their hands, their shirts, their clothing,” she said.
She’d gone to San Diego to watch the video with her fourth daughter, Christina Quitasol, who agreed that the coroner reports had all the proof that showed her family was awake in the bunkroom. They lost the three siblings — EvanMichel, Nicole, and Angela Rose Quitasol — and also the girls’ father, Michael Storm Quitasol, who was celebrating his 62nd birthday on the dive expedition.
“It has been very upsetting,” Christina Quitasol said, “that people who aren’t part of our 34 loved ones [group] try to tell us otherwise, that people sleep with their shoes on.” Not her daughters, Susana Solano Rosas said; they would never wear shoes in bed. “Some comments are a little hurtful that are made sometimes by the dive community,” she said, referring to those who voiced support for a captain who was derelict in his duties. “If there had been a night watch, 34 people would not have perished.”
Jerry Boylan, who captained the Conception that Labor Day weekend, faces a criminal charge of seaman’s manslaughter in federal court. The video from the damaged cell phone is part of the evidence the FBI holds in its investigation, and even the National Transportation Safety Board could not access the electronic equipment in its own investigation of the fire. While Boylan’s failure to set a night watch was a factor in the fire and deaths, the NTSB determined, the agency could not state what caused the fire — commonly thought to be a swarm of lithium ion batteries recharging on a mare’s nest of extension cords — as the U.S. Attorney’s Office held the evidence.
One of the attorneys representing several families of the victims is John Hillsman of McGuinn, Hillsman, and Palefsky in San Francisco. He said he couldn’t comment on the video, but added, “It’s a very frustrating example of how the government is strategically leaking some evidence but sequestering all the rest. That cherry-picking of the evidence makes absolutely no sense to the families.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they had no comment on the matter.
There are many frustrating things about the Conception disaster. The NTSB made a long list of the changes they’d advocated for over the years but the Coast Guard had failed to implement that might have saved the passengers — and the families have filed suit against the Coast Guard. But both Solano Rosas and Quitasol praised the work Congressmember Salud Carbajal had done to make changes. These include new rules that the Coast Guard is implementing and also a revised liability limitation rule that dates to 1851.
The 170-year-old law is a safe harbor for ship owners that limits their liability to the value of the ship; in the case of the Conception, which burned to the waterline, that value is zero. Though Carbajal’s legislation is not retroactive in time, or to the Conception, the Small Vessel Liability Fairness Act makes owners of small passenger vessels legally responsible for damages regardless of the value of the boat; it also changes the claim-filing time from six months to two years. This piece of legislation is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Biden signed on Friday.
“Nothing can bring my daughters or our children back,” Solano Rosas said, “but Carbajal is doing his best to get safety regulations and rules so this doesn’t happen to another family.” The tragedy has bound the families together, and she said she’d learned so much from the other survivors: “We don’t want them to be forgotten. They were all such amazing people.”