Initial federal report released on 'Conception' dive boat fire

Sep 12, 2019

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a preliminary report on its investigation into the September 2 disaster aboard the ‘Conception,’ the commercial dive boat that caught fire and sank while anchored in the Channel Islands. Of the 39 people aboard, 34 died in the blaze.

The report states that all crew members were asleep at the time of the fire. There had been earlier questions about whether a crew member had been assigned to night watch, which Jennifer Homendy of the NTSB said was required by federal law. The report also mentions two “locally-sounding smoke detectors in the overhead of the bunkroom,” but does not specify if the alarms had actually gone off as the fire grew.

Those that died in the fire are suspected to have succumbed to smoke inhalation before being burned, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. That includes the victim whose body was recovered Wednesday.

“There was an examination that showed that there was evidence that supported the belief that the cause of death was through smoke inhalation,” Brown said in a Thursday afternoon press conference, the last one local officials will be holding in the case.

“Upon the completion of the salvage operation, local and state involvement in this incident will wind down,” Brown said. “The investigation into the cause of this disaster, will continue for some time to come, and it will be led by several of our federal partners.”

The report provides a narrative of the events that began unfolding after a 3:14 a.m. mayday call. Once one crewmember awoke “by a noise” and saw a fire burning up from the deck below, he raised the alarm among the other crewmembers sleeping behind the wheelhouse on the top deck of the boat.

“The crewmembers attempted to access the salon and passengers below,” according to the NTSB report released on Sept. 12. “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.”

Most of the information in the preliminary report was been previously disclosed by NTSB officials at press conferences in the week following what the Coast Guard calls a major marine casualty.

The Coast Guard now has custody of the boat’s wreckage, raised from the water Thursday and towed to a “secure, undisclosed location,” authorities said, for further forensic examination. The Coast Guard announced it was launching its highest-level investigation into the deadly fire. The agency also issued a safety bulletin this week that urges boaters to make sure escape hatches are clearly identified, ensure required firefighting equipment is working and stop unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries.