The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) just announced that on October 20, 2020, it will hold a special board meeting to discuss the investigation into the tragic dive boat fire of the MV Conception that occurred over a year ago off the Santa Cruz Island coast, killing 34 people. It is California’s worst maritime disaster since Brother Jonathan’s sinking in 1865, and the deadliest in the United States since the 1989 Iowa turret explosion.
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 operated charter excursions for divers from Santa Barbara Harbor to explore the Channel Islands, located near the coast of Southern California.
The boat was refurbished at a cost of more than $1 million after an incident in 2005, when it was stolen and run aground. Federal and international regulations require boats to be made of fire-resistant materials over a certain size and to include fire sprinklers and smoke detectors wired into the ship’s electronics or connected to the bridge. Given the age and size of the vessel, those regulations did not cover Conception at less than 100 GT and with less than 49 berths. It was constructed of wood covered with fibreglass, as permitted by the regulations last updated in 1978. Conception was believed to comply with those regulations at the time of the fire, and the most recent inspections by the Coast Guard in February 2019 and August 2018 did not result in any notable violations.
A crew member sleeping in the crew quarters on the sun deck awoke to the sound of a pop in the dark on the night of the fire (September 2019) and believed that it might be a disoriented crew member or passenger. He left his bed to try to help the individual but discovered an uncontrollable fire in the ship’s galley, inside the main deck cabin. The fire had already spread up to the aft end of the sun deck. The remaining crew members were awakened while two Mayday calls were placed around 3:15 a.m. The five crew members who slept on the sun deck could not descend to the main deck, as the aft ladder was already engulfed in flames; instead, they jumped down to the main deck and one broke his leg in the process. The captain of the ship said the fire had engulfed the aft escape hatch, and the surviving crew could do nothing to help passengers and one crew member sleeping in the lower deck berths. The crew then tried to reach the main deck cabin through a window in the boat’s forward section but were thwarted by heavy smoke and flames which prevented the crew from getting closer to rescuing the trapped passengers and one crew member.
The five crew members jumped from the bow into the ocean to escape the fire; the captain and two crew members picked up the boat’s skiff (an inflatable dinghy) from the stern and paddled about 200 yards (180 m) to the only nearby moored boat, The Grape Escape, after picking up the remaining crew in the water. The surviving crew issued another mayday alert from The Grape Escape and two of the crew returned in the skiff to the Conception to search for survivors. While waiting for aid, small explosions were heard from the Conception, believed by the crew, to be caused by the rupture of the heat of the fire by the pressurized dive cylinders.
The fire had burned to the hull waterline, which was also filled with water from firefighting efforts. The hulk was not sufficiently stable to put pumps on board to dewater it. Conception was then towed back to shallower waters by the TowBoatUS vessel to assist in its recovery but the boat sank about four hours after the fire erupted, coming to rest upside down at a depth of 64 feet (20 m) at the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. Of the 33 passengers and six crew members onboard the vessel, the night of the fire killed all 33 passengers and one crew member, with five crew members fleeing with injuries. The last body was located by divers from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff and recovered on September 11, 2020.
Truth Aquatics, based in Santa Barbara was the Conception’s owner and operator ceased all operations indefinitely, of their other dive boats in October 2019.
In the preliminary report, the NTSB had not indicated a possible cause for the blaze but did report that all crew members were asleep with no one on night watch duty. The Coast Guard immediately issued a Marine Safety Information Bulletin after the fire, 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.”
The NTSB board will convene Oct. 20, 2020, where five members will disclose the final report of their investigation into the fire and disclose in their final report their findings, probable cause and recommendations.