More Legal Action Taken After Conception Fire

Conception before the fire
Conception before the fire

Published Jan 25, 2020 5:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

Maritime legal firm Fiore Achermann has initiated legal action on behalf of the family of a man killed in the Conception dive boat fire in September 2019.  

On August 31, 2019, 33 passengers and six crew members boarded the Conception for a three-day diving voyage off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. In the early morning hours of September 2, a fire broke out onboard the vessel that resulted in the death of 33 passengers and one crew member.

An investigation into the tragedy found that divers and crew would charge lithium-ion batteries on the boat for cell phones and tablets, as well as their cameras and other equipment. Preliminary evidence suggests the fire started in the galley where the batteries were being charged. 

The surviving members of the vessel's crew were berthed on the pilothouse level of the boat, and they were awakened by the fire, not by an alarm; at that point, it proved impossible to rescue the victims belowdecks. 

The Conception's smoke detectors were not connected together in a unified fire detection and alarm system, as fire systems meeting merchant-vessel standards are not required aboard a small "T-boat" with less than 49 passengers.

After the fire, the U.S. Coast Guard for the first time recommended that crews limit the use of unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries to reduce the risk of fire hazards. 

The family alleges that the Conception dive boat was unseaworthy at the time of the incident. The vessel lacked adequate life-saving and fire-safety equipment, trapping the divers in the hull without a safe means of egress. 

Fiore Achermann's filing is the sixth taken over the incident against the vessel owner Truth Aquatics. "Nearly a year before the Conception's deadly voyage, Truth Aquatics had a fire onboard their sister ship, the Vision, which was reportedly ignited by a lithium battery," said Jennifer Fiore, the firm's leading maritime lawyer.

In addition to the duty to provide a safe and seaworthy vessel to the dive-boat passengers, "the vessel owners had a responsibility to know about the potential dangers of lithium-ion batteries being charged onboard before encouraging passengers to charge their equipment.” Fiore claims the tragedy was completely preventable.

The NTSB, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Coast Guard's marine safety division, the Justice Department and the Coast Guard Investigative Service are conducting three parallel investigations into the circumstances of the fire. A preliminary report by the NTSB found that no one was designated as a roving watch at the time of the fire.

The NTSB recounts details of the vessel and the events surrounding the fire:

The wood and fiberglass vessel was built in 1981. The vessel had three levels: the uppermost sun deck, containing the wheelhouse and crew rooms; the main deck, which included the salon and galley; and the lower deck within the hull, which housed the passenger berthing (bunkroom) and shower room, as well as the engine room and tanks.

Initial interviews of three crewmembers revealed that no mechanical or electrical issues were reported. At the time of the fire, five crewmembers were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crewmember was asleep in the bunkroom, which was accessed from the salon down a ladderwell in the forward, starboard corner of the compartment. The bunkroom had an emergency escape hatch located on the aft end, which also exited to the salon. There were two, locally-sounding smoke detectors in the overhead of the bunkroom.  

A crewmember sleeping in the wheelhouse berths was awakened by a noise and got up to investigate. He saw a fire at the aft end of the sun deck, rising 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 crewmembers attempted to access the salon and passengers below. Unable to use the aft ladder, which was on fire, the crewmembers jumped down to the main deck (one crewmember broke his leg in the process) and tried to access the salon and galley compartment, which was fully engulfed by fire at the aft end and by thick smoke in the forward end, through a forward window. Unable to open the window and overwhelmed by smoke, the crew jumped overboard.

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 through the aft doors was blocked by fire, so they launched a small skiff and picked up the remaining two crewmembers in the water. They transferred to a recreational vessel anchored nearby (Grape Escape) where the captain continued to radio for help, while two crewmembers returned to the Conception to search for survivors around the burning hull. 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 subsequently sank in about 60 feet of water.