Credit: Ventura County Fire Department

The deadly inferno aboard the Conception dive boat started in a plastic trash can, the Los Angeles Times reported in a front-page story published on the four-year anniversary of the disaster that claimed the lives of 34 off the coast of Santa Barbara.

The revelation comes from a confidential report prepared by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigators, who reconstructed the vessel’s middle deck to determine the fire’s point of origin. Their tests in a Maryland research lab in 2021, the Times’ Richard Winton reported, concluded that the blaze began in the trash can on the main deck and rapidly engulfed the boat’s main salon.

The fire occurred before dawn on September 2, 2019, while the Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island at the tail end of a three-day dive trip. Five crew members asleep in the boat’s top deck, including Captain Jerry Boylan, were awakened by shouts of “Fire! Fire!” and managed to escape. The passengers and another crew member trapped below deck by the flames, however, died from smoke inhalation, according to Santa Barbara County coroner’s reports. 

Initial investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) focused on charging areas for lithium-ion batteries, but the “ATF said it found no evidence to support that the fire started where a tangled web of lithium batteries had been charging, although it noted that such batteries can ignite when they malfunction,” the Times reported. After extensive testing, the ATF report stated that while investigators could not determine the exact cause of ignition — citing possibilities such as discarded smoking materials, open-flame ignition of combustible materials, or an unknown event — the fire’s point of origin was the 23-gallon Rubbermaid trash bin beneath the stairs on the main deck. The report also revealed that polyethylene trash cans like the one involved were prone to accidental fires, and safety alerts regarding such garbage cans were issued by the Coast Guard this June.

The leaked ATF report at the center of the Times article remains confidential, even to Congressmember Salud Carbajal’s office. Communications Director Ian Mariani confirmed, “The ATF has made it clear that the report will remain private until such time as the civil and criminal court cases are final.”

Captain Boylan, who has been charged with seaman’s manslaughter for allegedly failing to have a roving night watch on duty while those aboard were asleep, continues to deny any wrongdoing. Last Thursday, Boylan’s attorneys cited the ATF’s inability to determine the fire’s cause in a motion to dismiss the case, which also alleged the prosecutors influenced witnesses by asserting Boylan’s guilt while questioning them. Boylan’s trial in federal court is scheduled for next month.


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