Report: All crew members were asleep when Conception caught fire
The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report of the Conception dive boat was released Thursday morning, revealing that all six crew members were asleep when the fire broke out in the early Labor Day morning.
Around 3:14 a.m. on Sept. 2, the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles/Long Beach received a distress call from the 75-foot commercial diving vessel. There were 39 people on board, including six crew members and 33 passengers.
The vessel was on a three-day diving trip to the Channel Islands when, on the last night of the voyage, the vessel caught fire while anchored in Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island. Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died.
Absent from Thursday’s preliminary report was the cause and source of the fire, which remains under investigation.
“Initial interviews of three crewmembers revealed that no mechanical or electrical issues were reported,” the report reads. “At the time of the fire, five crew members were asleep in the berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crewmember was asleep in the bunk room.”
The Conception, which is owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, was classified by the Coast Guard as a small passenger vessel. These types of vessels require a “roaming nightwatchman” who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of any danger. U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Mark Barney confirmed that the vessel was required to have a roaming watchman on the vessel.
Two “locally-sounding” smoke detectors were in the overhead of the vessel’s bunkroom. The vessel was not required to have smoke detector wired through the vessel’s wheelhouse, authorities said.
“A crewmember sleeping in the wheelhouse berths was awakened by a noise and got up to investigate,” the report reads. “He saw a fire at the aft of the sun deck, raising up from the salon compartment below. The crewmember alerted the crew behind the wheelhouse. As crewmembers awoke, the captain radioed a distress message to the Coast Guard.”
The crew members attempted to access the passengers below, but were unable to access the aft ladder because it was on fire. The crewmembers jumped down to the main deck, with one of the crewmembers suffering a broken leg in the process. The crew tried to access the salon and galley compartment, which was also fully engulfed by fire at the aft and by thick smoke in the forward end.
“Unable to open the window and overwhelmed by smoke, the crew jumped overboard,” the report states. “Two crewmembers and the captain swam to the stern, reboarded the vessel, opened the hatch to the engine room and saw no fire. Access to the salon though the aft doors was blocked by fire, so they launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water.”
The crewmembers transferred to a nearby vessel, The Grape Escape, where the captain continued to radio for help. Two crewmembers returned to the Conception to search for survivors. Local Coast Guard and fire departments arrived on scene to extinguish the fire and conduct search and rescue. The vessel burned to the waterline by morning and sank in about 60 feet of water, according to the report.
Investigators have collected documents from recent Coast Guard inspections and visited another vessel owned by Truth Aquatics, Vision, which is similar to Conception.
“Investigators plan to examine current regulations regarding vessels of this type, year of build and operation; early-warning and smoke-detection and alarm systems; evacuation routes; training; and current company policies and procedures,” the report reads. “Efforts continue to determine the source of the fire.”
According to the NTSB, the information published Thursday’s is subject to change and may contain errors. Officials said the report may be supplemented or corrected as the investigation continues. A final report is expected within 12 to 18 months of the incident.
Representatives from the Coast Guard and Department of Justice were unable to comment on whether Truth Aquatics or Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the trip, would be held liable if any violations were found.
When posed this question, former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles and current law professor at Loyola Law School of Loyola Marymount University Laurie Levenson said in an email that it would depend on the facts that aren’t yet known.
“If any of them ‘caused’ the accident by negligence or fraud, they could be charged,” she said in an email. “Did the owner have a boat that was unsafe? Did the charter company follow safety rules? Those are all key questions.”
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown reiterated during a press conference Thursday that there was “no indication that there are any criminal charges imminent.”
All 34 of the victims who died in the dive boat fire have been identified.
The remains of the final victim was located Wednesday afternoon in a cove about one-third of a mile west of where the boat sank near Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island, Sheriff Brown said.
The victims are: Carol Diana Adamic, 60, of Santa Cruz; Juha Pekka Ahopelto, 50, of Sunnyvale; Neal Gustav Baltz, 42, of Phoenix, AZ.; Patricia Ann Beitzinger, 48, of Chandler, AZ.; Vaidehi Campbell, 41, of Felton; Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59, of Los Altos; Kendra Chan, 26, of Oxnard; Adrian Dahood-Fritz, 40, of Sacramento; Justin Carroll Dignam, 58, of Anaheim; Berenice Felipe, 16, of Santa Cruz; Lisa Fielder, 52, of Mill Valley; Kristina “Kristy” Finstad, 41, of Santa Cruz; Andrew Fritz, 40, of Sacramento; Daniel Garcia, 46, of Berkeley; Marybeth Guiney, 51, of Santa Monica; Yuko Hatano, 39, of San Jose; Yulia Krashennaya, 40, of Berkeley; Alexandra Kurtz, 26, of Santa Barbara; Xiang Lin, 45, of Fremont; Caroline McLaughlin, 35, of Oakland; Charles McIlvain, 44, of Santa Monica; Kaustubh Nirmal, 33, and Sanjeeri DeoPujari (Nirmal), 31, both of Stamford, CT.; Angela Rose Quitasol, 28, of Stockton; Evan Michel Quitasol, 37, of Stockton; Nicole Storm Quitasol, 31, of Imperial Beach; Michael Quitasol, 62, of Stockton; Steven Salika, 55, of Santa Cruz; Tia Salika-Adamic, 17, of Santa Cruz; Sumil Sandhu, 45, of Half Moon Bay; Fernisa Sison, 57, of Stockton; Ted Strom, 62, of Germantown, TN.; Kristian Takvam, 34, of San Francisco; and Wei Tan, 26, of Goleta.
It is believed that all of the victims died due to smoke inhalation. Sheriff Brown said traditional autopsies were not conducted on all 34 victims, though all victims were examined.
“Generally our policy is not to do (complete autopsies) in a mass casualty situation where the cause of death is believed to be known and common with all the victims,” Sheriff Brown said.
He said the case has been challenging due to the remote location of the vessel, the lengthy rescue response, and the difficulties surrounding recovery of the dive boat.
“It has been emotionally charged as well as physically difficult for the people that have been involved,” said Sheriff Brown.
He referred to California’s mutual aid system as “the best in the world” and praised several local, state and federal agencies for their efforts in the wake of the tragedy.
Toxicology reports are still pending for the five crew members who survived. Those reports are typically completed in about two weeks, authorities said.
The salvage operations of the vessel resumed Wednesday. The dive boat was raised to the surface and was being prepared to be lifted onto a barge. It will then be transported to an undisclosed, secure location for further investigation, Sheriff Brown said.
The U.S. Coast Guard will have custody of the vessel until it is brought to land. It will then be turned over to the NTSB. Several investigations remain ongoing.
“We are in support with our federal partners who have a host of other federal agencies involved as well,” said the sheriff. “Those investigations will continue for quite some time.”