NTSB: All Crewmembers Were Asleep When Dive Boat Caught Fire

The Conception: wheelhouse and crew berthing on the top deck, galley and salon on the main deck, berthing belowdecks (Truth Aquatics)

Published Sep 12, 2019 5:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its preliminary factfinding report into the circumstances surrounding the loss of the dive boat Conception, which burned and sank in the early hours of September 2 off Santa Cruz Island. 34 people lost their lives in the accident, putting it among the ranks of the deadliest civilian marine casualties in recent U.S. history.

The vessel was at anchor in calm weather at the time of the casualty. According to testimony from three of the five survivors, all personnel on board were asleep at the time the fire broke out. The report indicates that no member of the crew was performing the duties of a roving watchstander while the vessel lay at anchor, as required by the vessel's COI. 

 All five survivors were members of the crew, and they were all sleeping in a berthing area on the top deck level when the fire broke out, according to NTSB. After the fire started, one crewmember woke up upon hearing a noise and got up to investigate, and he saw flames rising from the aft end of the main deck level salon compartment, one level above the passenger berthing area. 

The Conception's passenger bunks were on the bottom deck, below the galley and the salon, with one ladder leading up at the forward end and one overhead escape hatch above a bunk at the aft end. Both methods of egress led up into the same compartment. (A video tour of the common spaces aboard a near-sister ship, the Vision, is available here.)

Upon seeing the fire, the crewmember woke his crewmates in the top deck berthing, including the master, who made a distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard. The crewmembers were not able to use a ladder to access the salon, as it was on fire, and they jumped down to the main deck to attempt to assist the passengers. One crewmember broke his leg in this evolution. They tried to access the salon from the foredeck, but smoke and flame prevented entry. 

Two crewmembers and the captain jumped over the side, swam to the stern and climbed back aboard. They checked the engine room hatch and found no fire within. Access to the salon from the stern was blocked by flame, so they abandoned ship using a small skiff. They collected the two other surviving members of the crew and left for a nearby pleasure vessel, the Grape Escape, and sent an additional call for help. Two crewmembers returned to the area near Conception to seach for survivors. 

Efforts to extinguish the fire ended when the fiberglass-hulled Conception burned to the waterline and sank in 60 feet of water. The remains of all 34 individuals from the lower berthing area have since been recovered, and the Santa Barbara County coroners' office has determined that the victims died of smoke inhalation. DNA profiling methods are being used to identify the remains. 

A team from Global Diving and Salvage has been contracted to raise the wreckage of the Conception for use in the investigation, and work is under way. 

NTSB is the lead agency for the safety inquiry, and the Coast Guard has also convened a Marine Board of Investigation to look into the circumstances of the casualty. A parallel criminal inquiry led by the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Coast Guard Investigative Service is also under way. 

Investigators have indicated that they are considering the possibility that a charging station for cameras, cell phones and other devices with lithium-ion batteries could have been the source of ignition. The USCG has issued a marine safety bulletin encouraging passenger boat operators to consider limiting the unsupervised use of charging devices and extension cords / power strips aboard their vessels.