The diving boat Conception burns off the coast of Santa Cruz island, California, on September. 2, 2019
|Date||September 2, 2019|
|Time||Approximately 3 a.m. PDT UTC−07:00|
|Location||Platts Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, California, United States|
|Outcome||(See Aftermath section)|
The sinking of MV Conception occurred on September 2, 2019, when the 75-foot (23 m) dive boat caught fire and eventually sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California, United States. The boat was anchored overnight at Platts Harbor, a small undeveloped bay on the north shore of the island, with 33 passengers and 1 crew member asleep below decks when fire broke out shortly after 3 a.m. Five of the crew members, whose sleeping quarters were on the top deck, were forced by the fire to jump overboard but not before placing an initial mayday call to the Coast Guard and attempting to alert the passengers. The crew retrieved the Conception's skiff and motored to a nearby boat where a second radio dispatch was made. The loss of the boat spurred a rescue operation by the United States Coast Guard.
MV Conception was a 75-foot (23 m) liveaboard boat built in Long Beach, California, and launched in 1981. It was one of three dive boats owned by Truth Aquatics, which operates charter excursions from Santa Barbara Harbor for groups of divers interested in exploring the Channel Islands, located close to the coast of Southern California across the Santa Barbara Channel from Santa Barbara and Ventura County. Conception was under charter to Worldwide Diving Adventures (WDA) for a three-day scuba diving excursion over the Labor Day holiday weekend, which was one of WDA's most popular diving tour packages. The boat had been refurbished at a cost of more than $1 million following an incident in 2005 when it had been stolen and run aground.
Federal and international regulations require boats over a certain size to be made of fire resistant materials and to include fire sprinklers and smoke detectors wired into the ship's electronics or linked to the bridge. Given the vessel's age and size, Conception, at less than 100 GT and with fewer than 49 berths, was not covered by those regulations. It was constructed of wood covered with fiberglass, as permitted by regulations last updated in 1978. At the time of the fire, Conception was believed to be in compliance with those regulations, and the most recent Coast Guard inspections in February 2019 and August 2018 did not result in any noteworthy violations. According to the vessel's Certificate of Inspection, it had a maximum capacity of 103: 4 crew and 99 passengers; one crewmember was required to be designated as a roving patrol at all times when the passenger bunks were occupied.
The boat was laid out with three decks. The upper sun deck contained the wheelhouse. The main deck, just below the sun deck, included a large cabin, which had a galley (in the forward portion of the cabin) where the crew could prepare meals and a salon (in the aft portion) with seating for meals. On the lower deck, up to 46 individuals could sleep in 13 double bunks (12 of which were stacked in twos) and 20 single bunks (18 stacked in threes), with one labeled as reserved for crew. The rest of the crew berths were located two decks above, in the aft portion of the wheelhouse on the sun deck.
According to the deck plans, the main access to the guest accommodations was the forward stairway connected to the galley and main deck cabin. The designer of the vessel stated that there were two exits from the bunk room: a forward staircase at the bow end of the vessel that led up to the galley area, and an aft escape hatch located above one of the bunks, which led to the salon. After exiting the aft escape hatch, a person would still be within the main deck cabin, approximately 3 to 4 feet (0.91 to 1.22 m) forward of the exit to the main deck. Some former dive passengers could only recall the forward stairway exit and could not recall if they had been briefed on the presence of the aft emergency escape hatch. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown stated both exits appeared to have been blocked by fire during the disaster.
On the night of the fire, a crew member sleeping in the crew quarters on the sun deck awoke to the sound of a pop in the dark and believed it to be a disoriented crew member or passenger. Upon leaving his bed to attempt to aid the individual, he discovered an uncontrollable fire in the ship's galley, inside the main deck cabin. The fire had already spread to the aft end of the sun deck. The crew member returned to wake the remaining crew on the sun deck, and two mayday calls were placed at approximately 3:15 am from the wheelhouse of the Conception. The five crew members that had been sleeping on the sun deck were unable to descend to the main deck, as the aft ladder was already engulfed in flames; they instead jumped down to the main deck and one broke his leg in the process.
The ship's captain said the aft escape hatch was engulfed in fire and the surviving crew could do nothing to help the passengers and one crew member sleeping in the lower deck berths. The crew then attempted to access the main deck cabin through a window in the forward section of the boat, but were thwarted by thick smoke; flames prevented the crew from getting any closer to rescuing the trapped passengers. The five crew members leapt into the ocean from the bow to escape the fire; two and the captain retrieved the boat's skiff (an inflatable dinghy) from the stern, and, after retrieving the remaining crew, paddled approximately 200 yards (180 m) to the only boat moored nearby, The Grape Escape.
The surviving crew put out another mayday alert from The Grape Escape and two of the crew returned to the Conception in the skiff to search for survivors. While waiting for aid, small explosions were heard from the Conception, believed by the crew to be caused by the pressurized dive cylinders rupturing from the heat of the fire. One of the distress calls sent from the Conception initially suggested that at least one individual below deck was awake, as a man's voice was recorded screaming "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I can't breathe!" However, Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, clarified the first mayday calls had been made by the captain of the Conception from the wheelhouse before he evacuated from the boat.
Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles–Long Beach received the mayday calls at approximately 3:30 am. The call was received via Channel 16 VHF, advising that a 75-foot commercial dive vessel was fully engulfed in flames with 39 remaining on board. Boats and helicopters from the Coast Guard, the Ventura County and Santa Barbara County Fire Departments, and a private company, TowBoatUS Ventura (formerly Vessel Assist Ventura) were dispatched to the site. After arriving onsite, officials struggled to fight the fire, as the boat was in a remote location with limited firefighting resources, and the fire was moving quickly and kept flaring up. The anchor line of the Conception burned through and the boat began to drift towards the island, raising fears it might ignite onshore vegetation. In addition, since Conception had drifted into shallower waters, most of the fireboats on-scene were unable to continue fighting the fire for lack of clearance, including a shallow-draft Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol boat.
In order to attempt to fight the fire and allow fireboats to reach the vessel, it was towed out to deeper water by the rigid hull inflatable operated by TowBoatUS. The fire was extinguished by 5:23 am. The Coast Guard cutter Narwhal, based in Corona Del Mar, arrived approximately two hours after being dispatched and remained onsite for four days as the command and control ship to coordinate rescue and recovery operations.
The fire had burned to the waterline of the hull, which was also full of water from firefighting efforts. The hulk was not stable enough to place pumps on board to dewater it. Conception was then towed by the TowBoatUS vessel back to shallower waters to aid in its recovery, but the boat sank about four hours after the fire broke out, coming to rest upside-down at a depth of 64 feet (20 m) approximately 20 yards (18 m) from the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. The Coast Guard suspended their search for survivors at 9:40 am on September 3 after spending 23 hours combing 160 sq mi (410 km2) of the waters north of Santa Cruz Island with five MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews, two Response Boat-Medium crews, and the USCGC Narwhal.
Of the 33 passengers and six crew members that were on board the vessel, all 33 passengers and one crew member were killed the night of the fire, with five crew members escaping with injuries. As of September 2, Coast Guard divers located 25 bodies, while nine other people remained missing. Four floating bodies were initially recovered at the time of the sinking, and another sixteen were pulled from the water later. Another five bodies were visible in the vessel but unreachable because of concerns about unsafe conditions on the boat. The Coast Guard suspended search efforts on the morning of September 3, as it required the wreckage to be stabilized before searching it for further bodies. The unaccounted victims have been presumed dead. By September 4, all but one of the bodies had been recovered, with around thirty local divers and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assisting in the search for the last body. The last body was located and recovered on September 11.
Most of the victims were from California. One couple was from Arizona. Two of the victims were confirmed to be Singaporean. Two victims were from India, living in Stamford. Two of the victims are believed to have been students. It is believed that the youngest was age 16 and the oldest were in their 60s, with a majority of the victims from Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.
DNA was collected from family members to be used by the Santa Barbara County coroner to identify the bodies. Identification was delayed by the loss of the onboard passenger manifest and difficulties by law enforcement in initially locating a second copy. The apparent cause of death was smoke inhalation. Twenty-three of the bodies were identified with the assistance of a private company that had developed a form of rapid DNA technology previously used to identify Camp Fire victims. All 34 victims were identified by September 12.
Truth Aquatics was considered a respectable business in the area, with their boats in good condition, according to state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents the Santa Barbara area. Local entrepreneur Ken Kurtis, owner of a dive charter company, told The Maritime Executive it was the only major fire he was aware of on a Californian dive boat and the issue was not widely contemplated by the local industry. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein called for an investigation into the incident and specifically wants to address the training of the crew and why they were not able to rescue or alert the passengers. She also wants to see if additional regulations are needed to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Via press release, Feinstein stated "It's inconceivable that with all the safety regulations we have in place today, a fire on a boat can lead to the loss of life we saw this morning near Santa Cruz Island".
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched a go team on September 3 to the accident to investigate. The on-scene portion of the investigation is scheduled to last for ten days, with the objective to determine the cause of the fire and verify the safety measures that had been aboard Conception. The Coast Guard launched its own safety investigation focused principally on regulation adherence and on determining if enforcement action was required. The NTSB and other authorities toured the Conception's sister ship Vision, also owned by Truth Aquatics, to evaluate how it might be evacuated in the event of a fire. During the tour of Vision, NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy was "taken aback" by the difficulty of using the aft escape hatch. "You have to climb up a ladder and across the top bunk and then push a wooden door up. It was a tight space." Speaking on September 3, Member Homendy said she was "one hundred percent confident that we will learn the why and the how" behind the accident.
Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) immediately responded, but investigatory agents did not arrive until September 7, to investigate the point of ignition and cause of the blaze. Search warrants were served on September 8 for the Truth Aquatics offices and the two remaining boats in its fleet. On September 9, law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times that a joint federal criminal investigation was underway, led by the Coast Guard, joined by the FBI and ATF, and under the oversight of the United States Attorney for Los Angeles. The focus of the investigation is on records retrieved from the offices of Truth Aquatics, prompted by a preliminary investigation which indicated potential deficiencies in crew training, passenger safety briefings, and the failure to use a roaming "night watchman".
On September 11, the Coast Guard announced it had convened a formal Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) for the fire and loss of Conception. The four members of the MBI will determine contributing factors, including whether the actions of certified people or any Coast Guard or government personnel may have contributed to the loss.
The wreck was examined by government officials after it was retrieved and brought to Port Hueneme on September 13; the ATF examination concluded September 27, but no immediate cause of the fire was determined. Some parts of the boat have been removed and sent to laboratories for further examination.
Derrick barge Salta Verde ( MMSI number: 367507960) arrived at Santa Cruz Island to assist with the salvage operation on September 4. Divers examined the wreckage to prepare to raise it, but high winds and heavy seas hampered the recovery plans. Conception had settled on the bottom upside-down; the first attempt to roll the boat upright and raise it was planned for September 6, but recovery efforts would have been delayed if the windy conditions had continued. The FBI assisted this portion of the investigation due to their experience in evidence preservation. Side-scan sonar was used to image the boat in situ and video was taken of the undisturbed wreckage prior to lifting. Divers were required throughout the process to monitor the lift and look for the last victim.
Conception was rolled upright while underwater on September 6. Continued adverse weather conditions prevented the raising of the wreck until it was lifted from the sea on September 12. DB Salta Verde transported the boat to a secure location at Naval Base Ventura County through the Port of Hueneme by September 13.
The NTSB expects to conclude its investigation and declare a cause after twelve to eighteen months of investigations. One of the surviving crew members theorized the fire may have started in the galley of the ship, where cellphones and cameras had been plugged in to charge overnight. The designer of the vessel speculated the fire began in the bunk area, possibly sparked by a lithium battery. Boats made at the time the Conception was built were not installed with electrical systems that could handle the amount of rechargeable devices that would have been had by the passengers, between cell phones, cameras, and lighting systems for their dives. The sheer number of devices charging at once may have overloaded circuits, coupled with the hazards from lithium-ion battery overloading.
The NTSB expects to take remnants of any devices charging in the boat to their headquarters near Washington DC for further examination. On September 10, the Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) 008-19, immediately advising owners, operators, and masters of passenger vessels to limit "the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords."
While there were smoke detectors on the Conception, the surviving crew did not believe any alarms sounded before they discovered the fire. The detectors were of the standard type for home use, which, at the time both Conception and Vision were built, met existing safety requirements. MSIB 008-19 also advised that firefighting and lifesaving equipment should be checked immediately to ensure it is onboard and operational. According to the preliminary NTSB report, the two smoke alarms were locally-sounding, located in the lower deck bunkroom.
The boat was not at capacity, but according to the Los Angeles Times, the preliminary investigation identified the lack of a roaming night watch as a safety deficiency, in violation of the conditions in the Certificate of Inspection and 46 C.F.R. § 185.410. MSIB 008-19 advised owners, operators, and masters to review the vessel's Certificate of Inspection to ensure that crewmembers are aware of and understand any conditional requirements, including any crewmember obligations during an emergency. In addition, emergency escapes were to be clearly identified, verified functional, and free of obstructions.
NTSB issued a preliminary report on the fire on September 12. While the cause of the fire had not yet been determined, the Board asserted that the fire had spread through the boat while all of the crew had been asleep, despite regulations requiring one crew member to be awake on night watch. A lawyer representing Truth Aquatics disputed this assertion, and stated that one crew member had checked on the galley area around 2:30 am on September 2. Officials believed that all of the passengers and the crew-member sleeping below decks had died from smoke inhalation before they were burned or drowned.
A makeshift memorial was created outside the headquarters of Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara Harbor. A vigil was scheduled for September 6 with first responders taking part in the open-to-all event, which was organised by local religious groups, divers, and other organisations.
The United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held a hearing on November 14, 2019 to discuss commercial and passenger vessel safety. Brian Curtis, the director of the NTSB's Office of Marine Safety, testified before the Subcommittee, reiterating the investigation into the sinking of Conception was still in progress and that it would focus on the wreck itself as well as other factors such as current regulations, fire alarm and warning systems, evacuation routes, training, and company policies and procedures. Members of the Subcommittee asked the Coast Guard representative, Rear Admiral Richard Timme, what actions the Coast Guard was taking after the Los Angeles Times published an investigative story on November 12 stating the Coast Guard had often failed to implement safety recommendations from the NTSB. In response, Timme vowed the Coast Guard would "wholly fulfill our regulatory oversight role to keep the maritime public safe" and would adopt new regulations immediately after they are published by an internal task force developing inspection rules for vessels similar to Conception.
Truth Aquatics also filed a lawsuit in United States District Court for the Central District of California to limit its liability under the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. This was an apparent attempt to limit its liability for monetary damages to the value of the ship. Under the terms of the lawsuit, the ship valuation was assessed after it sank; because the insurer had deemed it a total wreck, the value was US$0. A counterclaim was filed in November 2019 by the spouse of a passenger who died aboard Conception, seeking funeral expenses and wrongful death, survival, and punitive damages.
One of the surviving crew members from Conception filed a lawsuit against Truth Aquatics, Worldwide Diving Adventures, and the Conception's owner, claiming that the crew had not received proper training nor was the boat outfitted with appropriate emergency equipment.
The owner, charterer, master, or managing operator of a vessel carrying overnight passengers shall have a suitable number of watchmen patrol throughout the vessel during the nighttime, whether or not the vessel is underway, to guard against, and give alarm in case of, a fire, man overboard, or other dangerous situation.