It was a sad day for residents of Santa Cruz island this last Monday, September 2, 2019 as The Conception went down in flames, taking with it more than 30 people who were sleeping below deck in their bunk beds.
The Conception was a 75-foot dive boat considered one of the best of its kind in the region. Although the cause of the fire hasn’t been determined yet, this is one unfortunate event that no one should have to experience.
An audio recording from a desperate call made to the U.S. Coast Guard as flames engulfed The Conception can be found in this link: http://chirb.it/4sHyGs. The recording offers a glimpse into the terror experienced by those aboard the ship, as a man could be heard pleading for help.
‘I can’t breathe….: was part of the dramatic conversation recorded from the mayday call from the boat on fire. We advise that you brace yourself before you listen, as the conversation is sad and disheartening.
According to Bill Brown, Santa Barbara County Sheriff, regarding Monday’s incident, “This is probably the worst-case scenario you could have. Imagine that of all scenarios: to be in a remote location, have a fire that occurs, have limited, if any, firefighting capabilities that could address that, and then to have all of a sudden a fire that spread very, very rapidly — you couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
Of the 39 individuals aboard The Conception before the fire began, only five of six crew members, who were awake and on the top deck when the fire broke out, managed to escape. At the beginning of this report, at least 20 people were confirmed dead and the rest were missing.
There is an ongoing investigation by The National Transportation Safety Board, along with Santa Barbara County fire and sheriff’s departments on the incident.
However, the investigation is still in its early stages, and the different eyewitness reports on the ground haven’t been all that helpful in determining the cause of the fire.
Records from the U.S. Coast Guard concerning inspections of The Conception, in February of this year and August 2018, did not indicate any violations.
Although previous inspections had shown deficiencies related to fire safety, they were promptly corrected: this includes a replacement of a heat detector in the galley’s fire detection system in 2016 and the replacement of a fire extinguisher as recent as 2017. Also, in 2014, a leaking fire hose was replaced, and emergency lighting below deck installed as far back as 2009, according to the U.S. Coast Guard records.
Some speculation concerning pinpoints the engine compartments as the cause of the fire. It is worth noting that these are mere speculations and not based on conclusive evidence. Engine compartments are notorious for fire breaks in boats and ships because this is where fuel and an ignition source can come together.
Other known causes are electrical defects such as sparks from short-circuited cables, faulty wiring harnesses or damaged batteries.
While propane grills aren’t allowed on many vessels, some believe that a propane fire/explosion occurred in the galley based on a description of the boat having an “Onboard built-in Bar-B-Que.”
Although there’s no conclusive evidence as to the cause of The Conception’s fire, there are speculations that the pure oxygen on board was pivotal to fueling and spreading the fire at such a quick rate.
The trip agenda, which is available online, revealed that Nitrox (a blend of pure oxygen and air) was available on the ship for divers.
It’s a sad event for many, and various individuals have come forward with different takes on the incident. Most people familiar with The Conception and its operated noted their disbelief at the incident.
One of such individual is Ralph Clevenger, a photographer who since the 1990s has been regularly hired by operators to take pictures of the hundred dive trips undertaken by The Conception said “Truth Aquatics runs one of the best operations; otherwise they wouldn’t be in business,” he also further stated that “Most of its customers are return customers.”
The Conception was built and owned by Glen Fritzler, a diver from the age of 12. Glenn Fritzler has been with the company since 1979 and owns one of three dive boats operated by Truth Aquatics Inc out of Santa Barbara Harbor.
According to information from the Coast Guard records and the company’s website, the wood-hulled Conception was built in Long Beach in 1981 and had 550-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines, with a total fuel capacity of 1,600 gallons.
The below-deck was built to accommodate a maximum number of 46 people, with 20 single bunks and 13 doubles bunks stacked in various manners. However, during the time of the incident, 34 occupants were asleep and oblivious of the danger they were in until too late.
An escape hatch leading to the salon deck was situated above one of the bunks and could be accessed by a curving staircase that led to the gallery.
69-year-old Bruce Rausch, a retired San Onofre nuclear engineer and an experienced divemaster who had been aboard The Conception during various diving expeditions correctly noted the location of the hatch stating that “It’s on a ceiling of the bunk room or the floor of the galley,” he further said that. “All you have to do is get up to a bunk and keep going up, and you use the bunk as ladders.”
What is yet to be determined is if those in the bunk area were cut off from the exits by the smoke or flames. There are concerns that the passengers weren’t properly trained to locate and navigate through the escape hatch.
According to an experienced mariner, smoke is a particular hazard in interior compartments, especially on vessels with Class-A materials. The smoke builds up overhead first and then rapidly descends to the deck level. “Presumably, if an escape hatch is in the overhead, it is located precisely where the smoke and heat will build up first, hiding the hatch and choking anyone trying to find it. The heat can build up quickly, driving away anyone determined enough to search for the hatch in the smoke.”
Rausch and many others who were shocked at the devastation the fire caused told The Times that there were fire extinguishers for those in the bunk area and that these fire extinguishers had smoke alarms installed, that if activated triggered emergency lighting and alarm systems.
Sadly, reports from the Coast Guard revealed the intention to suspend the search for possible survivors or victims aboard The Conception who at this point has sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
Bill Brown, told news conference that “There were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,”
Although The Conception made headlines for various incidents in the past, none was as terrible as this. In 2016, The Conception was involved in a minor diving incident as a diver ascended to the surface faster than expected and became unresponsive while swimming towards the boat. A medical report later showed that he had drowned, with heart disease as a contributing factor.
The boat also made headlines as far back as 2005 when it was allegedly stolen from Santa Barbara Harbor, by a 41-year old homeless man who rammed into several other ships at the harbor before making a stop at the beach of Vandenberg Air Force Base.