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October 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 34, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Tragic Tale of the Conception Fire

the cause remains unknown

from the October, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Labor Day sinking of the 75-foot liveaboard dive boat MV Conception off California's Santa Cruz Island killed 34 divers, making it the nation's deadliest maritime disaster in the past 30 years.

Conception, owned by the Santa Barbara-based dive operator Truth Aquatics, slept up to 46 passengers in a single large bunkroom below decks, with only one stairway up to the main deck and a small, out-of-the-way hatch to escape a cabin densely packed with people sleeping in the dark. When fire quickly engulfed the passageway exit, the passengers were unable to escape and died of smoke inhalation.

"There were kind of central areas with power strips. And they were a bit of a mess."

Five crew members were asleep on the deck above the galley. When awakened by the fire, they were unable to use a ladder that was on fire, so they jumped to the main deck. They were unable to rescue the passengers and escaped the inferno by jumping into the water.

How the fire started and the failure of the crew to put it out or alert the passengers has left serious questions.

What Caused the Fire is Still a Mystery

As of September 27, investigators still don't know the cause, though it appears that the fire had electrical origins and seems to have started in or near the galley, and not in the engine room.

Passengers were in the habit of charging batteries for their cameras -- video, digital, GoPros -- strobes, light rigs, cellphones, computers, even underwater scooters, close to the galley. Nearly everyone aboard surely had at least one of these devices, and many had two or more. Some people speculate that a lithium-ion battery that was being charged may have exploded, causing the fire. Or perhaps a mismatched or faulty charger or a frayed electrical cord was the culprit. Others speculate that the sheer number of devices being charged overwhelmed the electrical system. Or perhaps the electrical system itself somehow failed and started the fire.

Lance Zimmer, a previous passenger, told KABC-TV in Los Angeles, "We didn't all have our own personal stations where we could charge stuff, so there were kind of central areas with power strips. And they were a bit of a mess. Many of the electronics were charged near the galley, close to the stairs [out] and the only access [to and from] below deck."

The potential danger of lithium batteries is well advertised, especially for airplane passengers; the FAA has reported 265 lithium battery incidents in cargo or baggage. Since the Conception disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard has recommended that owners of passenger vessels immediately urge crews to "reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power cords.

Why Was There Nobody on Night Watch?

Truth Aquatic MV Conception before the fireThe National Transportation Safety Board, investigating the disaster, has issued a preliminary report and has determined that no crew member was awake and on watch, a violation of U.S. Coastguard procedure, not to say common sense. It was a tragic error.

Commercial vessels are required to have a crew member on watch at night, even when a vessel is at anchor. Anchors can drag, and wind direction can change. Unexpected waves can dislodge and topple anything not fastened down. An alert crewmember can catch a gas leak, an electrical fire, or any other problem, and stop it or at least mitigate it, and certainly roust the other crew members and passengers. These days, the danger of charging batteries while everyone is asleep is another reason why a watchman is important.

When I was a dive guide on a liveaboard, night watch was certainly one of my duties, and that included inspecting the galley and engine room. Conception had no on duty at night, though one member of the crew was awake about a half-hour before the tragedy. The crew members slept on the top deck, above the galley; one crew member was asleep below decks with the passengers and perished with them.

Apparently, after hearing a noise, one crew member above woke up and saw flames erupting from the galley/salon area and awoke the other crew members, who jumped down to the main deck, but were unable to do anything to help the passengers and eventually jumped into the water below.

Why was no one on watch? Did the captain not enforce the rule? Did a crewmember just blow it off or inadvertently fall asleep? These are questions the investigators are asking.

Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the captain of a vessel, in this case Jerry Boylan, who has been piloting boats for more than 30 years and had a solid reputation among those who had worked or dived with him. His lawyer, Michael Lipman, has said his client was "emotionally devastated."

Even without a watchman, one would hope that smoke and heat detectors would provide an early warning, but it is unclear, at this point, whether they were working. If functional, they would have emitted an ear-shattering screech and woken the passengers, presumably in time to escape.

The Conception was required to have smoke alarms, however, and it did pass an annual Coast Guard inspection five months before the fire. But, the fire seems to have spread so quickly that even if the passengers were warned, escaping up the stairway, in what must have been an extraordinary panic, may have been impossible.

The remains being lifted for investigatorsWere Passengers Aware of the Emergency Escape Hatch?

So far, no evidence suggests that anyone attempted to escape through the bunkroom's single, small emergency hatch, which was located above a bunk. Had the divers been told about it in the briefing? We divers know that it's not uncommon for such items to be glossed over in dive boat safety briefings and that divers fail to pay attention during the safety briefing instead of fiddling with their cameras and gear or chatting with friends.

Chris Connelly, a former captain for Truth Aquatics, told Sacramento news station KXTV that after the sinking, he was shocked when his wife, who had been on board the Conception many times, told him she was unaware of the escape hatch in the sleeping quarters. Other divers have told us the same.

The location of the escape hatch would make it difficult to locate and difficult to use, as Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation and Safety Board, confirmed in looking at the Conception's sister ship, the MV Vision.

Furthermore, the narrow staircase was no easy exit, especially if 34 passengers were rushing to climb it. And for those bedding down toward the stern of the boat, it would be a struggle to reach the stairway with 20 or more passengers ahead trying to exit in a panic.

John McDevitt, a former assistant fire chief and chairman of a National Fire Protection Association committee on boat protection, said the Conception's design was flawed, telling the Los Angeles Times, "It was a compliant fire trap." He questioned why both egress points -- the stairwell and the escape hatch -- deposited passengers into the galley and adjacent dining area. "When you put two exits into the same common area, you are not providing two means of egress; it's still only one. If they built that boat today, they could do more. When you put people down there in that dungeon, it's got to be [safe]."

Undercurrent subscriber Wendy Filener (Grand Junction, CO) wrote to us after the disaster about her experience on California dive boats, including the Conception. "All of the dive boats in Southern California are similar in design, with a large bunkroom below decks, usually pitch black with no windows, and only one truly useful escape route."

Even without a watchman, one would hope that smoke and heat detectors would provide an early warning.

"I am familiar with the tiny -- and highly difficult to locate in the dark -- secondary hatch of the Conception. It requires a contortionist to first locate the highest bunk at the stern, climb up there, squeeze around by feel in the very back of it to locate the tiny escape shaft on its roof, then wriggle four feet or so straight up, all the while in pitch-blackness, and haul yourself out. There would be no possible way that more than a handful, if any, of the 30 people would have had a chance to locate and maybe make their way out of that black tomb in any reasonable amount of time."

Chris Barry, chair of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers' small craft technical and research committee, agreed that the Conception's structure and cramped sleeping quarters were not unusual.

He told the Los Angeles Times, "These aren't luxury staterooms. All [the passengers] want to do is crash and sleep. They don't need a lot of luxury, and there's obviously a trade-off between the amount of space per person and the cost."

But even though Conception's layout was compliant with Coast Guard standards, when the escape hatch is difficult to reach, generally invisible to passengers, and maybe even unknown, it is not at all a route of escape.

What Happens Next?

On September 5, three days after the deadly inferno, Truth Aquatics Inc. filed suit in Los Angeles federal court under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law that allows it to limit its liability. Anyone filing a claim against the company would be served with notice that the firm was asserting it was not liable for damages, and victims will have a limited time to challenge that claim.

Such laws have their origins in 18th century England and are designed to encourage the shipping business. This time-tested legal maneuver has been successfully employed by owners of the Titanic and countless other crafts where passengers have lost their lives.

The suit said the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler "used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged."

A week after the fire, a criminal investigation was officially launched into the fire, with the FBI, Coast Guard and U.S. attorney in Los Angeles overseeing the proceedings; Federal search warrants were executed in Santa Barbara on September 7 to search Truth Aquatics' office and two remaining dive vessels.

The diving community and maritime professionals have generally heaped praise on Truth Aquatics, stating that the long-running operation and crew have regularly been professional, safety-conscious, and maintained top-notch facilities. Truth Aquatics owner Glen Fritzler is well-regarded in the diving community and in May was presented the California Scuba Service Award at the Long Beach scuba show. Clearly devastated by the tragedy, he has been cooperating with authorities who are looking into a wide range of safety issues, including whether the crew had adequate training to handle a major emergency on the vessel.

If charges are brought, prosecutors are likely to apply an obscure federal law known as the Seaman's Manslaughter Statute, which predates the Civil War and was enacted to punish negligent captains, engineers, and pilots for deadly steamboat accidents that killed thousands. The crime carries a potential penalty of up to 10 years in prison and sets a low bar for prosecutors, who only need to prove simple negligence or misconduct on the part of the captain or crew.

The law can also be extended to a boat owner or charterer who engages in "fraud, neglect, connivance, misconduct, or violation of law" that takes a life. That is harder to prove and used less frequently, according to attorney Kierstan Carlson, who told USA Today that she advises maritime clients to expect a criminal investigation in the case of deaths.

Carlson says a ship captain could be convicted if found not to have proper firefighting or safety equipment aboard or failing to have someone keeping watch. "That means somebody in charge of the vessel, in charge of major operations. There are some cases where a captain will put a junior person who is not sufficiently experienced in charge. That would also be a breach of the standard of care."

On September 12, the Coast Guard raised the burned remains of the Conception from 65 feet of water off Santa Cruz Island, where it was anchored the night of the fire. The middle deck and the wheelhouse had been completely ravaged, and a large part of the hull was burned or charred black. Officials transported the wreckage by barge to Port Hueneme naval facility, where investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are inspecting every last detail.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the investigation could take up to two years, but they are "100 percent certain" they will get to the bottom of what happened.

With so many fatalities, Truth Aquatics' insurance coverage (probably around $5 million) is bound to be inadequate. Even including all the company's assets, the funds available won't amount to much when divided so many ways. Plaintiffs in any filed suits will be looking for secondary defendants, such as the manufacturers of on-board equipment and the manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries and chargers.

Ryan Sims, employed as a steward aboard Conception for only three weeks, filed a lawsuit against the owners, alleging that they were "negligent in their failure to properly train crew members, give adequate safety and medical equipment and provide safety rules," among other claims. Given the significance of the fire and the layout of the vessel, the suit said, Sims "was required to jump from the top deck of the vessel to avoid fire," fracturing his leg in three places and injuring his back. Sims was one of five crew asleep on the top deck of the Conception at the time. His suit names Truth Aquatics, the Fritzler Family Trust (the Fritzlers own Truth Aquatics) and World Wide Diving Adventures, a family business that had chartered the boat. One of the family members, Kristy Finstand of Santa Cruz, died in the fire.

"This Labor Day disaster may well spark changes in regulations of commercial dive boats and related vessels," Kyle McAvoy, a retired Coast Guard captain and current marine safety expert with Robson Forensics, told CNN. "A lot of regulatory, policy, and safety initiatives are driven by tragic events such as this. The expression is that a lot of regulations are written in blood."

Next Month: what this means for liveaboard diving worldwide.

-- John Bantin

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