Conception Dive Boat Fire Investigation | Santa Cruz IslandBaum Hedlund2019-11-26T15:55:06-08:00
Conception Dive Boat Fire Investigation | Santa Cruz Island
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On Sept. 2, 2019, the Conception, a Truth Aquatics dive boat, erupted in a predawn fire near Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. All 33 passengers and one crew member below deck were killed in the fire. This is one of the deadliest recreational maritime disasters in recent history.
At around 3:30 a.m. on Labor Day, United States Coast Guard officials responded to a mayday call coming from the dive boat Conception. When they arrived, the vessel was completely engulfed in flames.
Five crew members, who were apparently on the bridge when the fire started, were rescued by another vessel. All 34 other people on the scuba diving boat, likely asleep below deck when the fire started, perished. According to media sources, many of the deceased were from the Bay Area.
“This is probably the worst-case scenario you can have,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. “It’s a vessel on the open sea in the middle of the night; it’s 3:30 in the morning … The sleeping compartment is on the bottom of the ship and they would be sound asleep … You couldn’t ask for a worse situation.”
Speaking with reporters, Brown said the victims likely died of smoke inhalation, not from burns. The fire burned so intensely that DNA analysis was required to identify the victims, but pathologists say the victims showed signs the burns happened after they died. No traditional autopsies will be conducted, but medical examiners will give the final determination as to what happened to the passengers and crew member who lost their lives in the tragedy.
Surviving Crew Members Interviewed by Investigators
Investigators will analyze documents and recordings linked to Conception, including Coast Guard recordings, 911 calls, maintenance documents, training documents, Conception’s inspection history and any manuals that exist. The vessel was reportedly not required to have a sprinkler system installed based on its size.
The Conception flipped over and sank to between 60 and 65 feet of water. Officials are using side-scan sonar to record the vessel as it currently sits before it is moved for further investigation.
The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 46. Shipping, Chapter I. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security (Refs & Annos), Subchapter T. Small Passenger Vessels (Under 100 Gross Tons) (Refs & Annos), Part 185. Operations (Refs & Annos), Subpart D. Crew Requirements, states:
“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.”
The report notes that the distress call came from Conception at about 3:14 a.m. PST on Monday, September 2, 2019, on the last night of its three-day excursion. Prior to the fire, the ship showed no signs of mechanical or electrical issues, according to three crew member interviews. After waking up to a fire, five crew members attempted to access passengers below but were unable to do so due to fire and thick smoke. The crew members made their way to a nearby boat and two returned to search for survivors.
The Coast Guard and fire departments arrived to fight the fire and perform a search and rescue, but no additional survivors were found, and the boat ultimately sank into about 60 feet of water.
Conception was built in 1981 and was manufactured from wood and fiberglass. At the time of the fire it was carrying 39 people—six crew and 33 passengers. The bunkroom, where passengers slept, could be accessed from a ladderwell and an emergency escape hatch. The boat had two locally sounding smoke detectors in the bunkroom.
Captain Issued Mayday Call
The captain reportedly made a mayday call from the boat at 3:15 am, before he and the crew left the Conception. In an interview with the NTSB, one crew member told investigators that he awoke because of a noise in the galley area and went to investigate. He came upon flames above the guests’ sleeping area. Crew members say they attempted to use a ladder to reach passengers, but flames blocked them.
They then tried to open the galley’s double doors, but fire again prevented them from doing so. At that point, the crew members jumped ship. Two crew members swam back and got a small utility boat and two others were rescued by another boat.
“It was horrific, the pounding,” Shirley Hansen said. “Our boat is very well made. Having that sound come through [showed] they were very in need of help.”
Hansen described the crew as distraught, with one saying his girlfriend was still on the Conception.
“I could see the fire coming through holes on the side of the boat,” Bob Hansen said. “There were these explosions every few beats. You can’t prepare yourself for that. It was horrendous.”
Hansen later told a reporter the fire was too big for them to do anything to help. The smoke was so thick that Shirley Hansen required her inhaler for her asthma.
Early Investigation Suggests Serious Safety Lapses on the Conception
Although officials are still investigating what caused the tragic fire on board the Conception, preliminary inquiries suggest there were serious safety issues on the boat that could have unnecessarily put passengers’ lives in danger. According to reports, the Conception did not have a “roaming night watchman” who was awake and able to alert passengers to dangers. One crew member was reportedly awake and in the galley until 2:35 a.m., but then went upstairs to the wheelhouse after checking the stove to ensure it was cold.
At some point after that the same crew member heard a noise and went to see if someone had tripped, which is when he discovered the fire.
Investigators are also looking into whether the crew received proper training to deal with emergency situations and whether the passengers were given a safety briefing before their voyage. Crew members told officials that the fire was too intense to save anyone below the deck.
The crew members also said they did not hear any smoke alarms. Speaking with reporters, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said the smoke alarm on the Conception was a simple one that could be bought at a hardware store. The Vision, a boat similar to the Conception, also has only one smoke alarm that is not wired into any larger alarm system.
Crew members have speculated that an overload of photography equipment and batteries on the boat that were charging may have triggered the fire but investigators have not confirmed that theory. One of the surviving crew members has said he believes the fire started in the galley where the cameras and cellphones were plugged in to charge.
Another theory is that the fire might have been started by a lithium battery in the boat’s bunk area. Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) laws, devices that use lithium batteries must be turned off if they are in checked luggage because of the hazards associated with them. Some dive boats require passengers to charge their lithium-battery devices on the deck because the deck has fewer hazardous materials and more equipment to stop a fire from spreading.
Among the complaints was that a safety briefing was not given until passengers reached their destination the day after they boarded the boat, that briefings lasted only five minutes, and did not include mention of fire extinguishers or escape hatches, and that passengers were not told what to do or where to go in case of emergency.
US Coast Guard Issues Safety Bulletin on Lithium Batteries
The US Coast Guard has issued a safety bulletin recommending commercial boat owners and operators limit the unsupervised charging of any devices that use lithium-ion batteries. Although the cause of the fire has not been determined, early reports suggest the possibility that a lithium battery may have started the fire, given the high number of cameras, phones, and batteries on the boat.
The Coast Guard also recommended boat operators review their emergency duties, update records regarding emergency drills and equipment maintenance, and conduct a check to ensure all emergency escapes are clear and well-marked.
Were passengers below deck trapped with only two possible points of egress: the stairs and a hatch? In either case, it is likely that only one person at a time could have used either of those means, assuming one or both was actually available to them during the conflagration. Was the vessel equipped with a fire alarm system or automatic fire suppression systems other that at the engine? Was there lighting that could have guided passengers to escape routes? Was the hatch of sufficient size and accessibility to be useful in the event of emergency? Was at least one crew member awake and keeping watch so as to take quick action in the event a fire broke out?
Touring the scuba boat Vision, which is similar to though slightly larger than Conception, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Jennifer Homendy said she was “taken aback” by the small size of the vessel’s emergency escape hatch. Homendy noted she and a team of investigators turned off the lights on Vision and had difficulty accessing the emergency hatch. She further stated they could not find the light switches.
Both the staircase and the emergency escape hatch were blocked by fire, making escape from Conception impossible for passengers.
Did the Dive Boat Conception Have Fire Suppressant?
Was the vessel equipped with proper fire suppression equipment that passengers and crew could easily access? Even if it had such equipment, would it have helped? If the Conception’s fire was actually an explosion, suppression systems would not have been a factor.
While the official cause of the Conception fire (or causes) will likely not be known for months, Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman attorney Clay Robbins III believes the investigation needs to address fundamental questions to give the victims’ families the answers they deserve.
Mr. Robbins is a veteran trial attorney with decades of experience litigating complex cases. He is currently representing several passengers injured while on a lava boat tour in Hawaii that ventured too close to an active lava flow from the Kilauea volcano in July 2018. Many passengers were injured when lava bombs rained down on them. He was also a certified diver for 20 years and conducted dozens upon dozens of dives either on his own boat or with outfits like the one that chartered the Conception.
“In the Conception dive boat fire,” Robbins says, “there are fundamental questions that need to be answered:
What caused the dive boat fire?
What are the reasons people aboard the Conception had to die?
“Just because something caused the Conception fire, that doesn’t necessarily mean people had to die. Did they die from an explosion? Fire? Smoke inhalation? There are many questions that need to be answered. The origin of this fire may well have been leakage of volatile gas. Where did it start? In the galley? In the engine compartment? If there was a leak, should there have been a warning the moment the leak sprung? Was the boat equipped with a warning for gas, whether diesel, propane, or butane leakage, and if not, why not?”
The possibility of a lithium battery spark causing this fire is one of many factors our team will be investigating. From a product liability legal perspective, we want to focus on:
The cause of the fire and it’s immediate conflagration
Suppliers of materials that may have accelerated the fire
Nicole Quitasol – Michael Quitasol’s daughter who lived and worked in the San Diego area.
Steve Salika – A senior manager at Apple who worked for the company for 30 years. Steve was aboard Conception with his wife, Diana Adamic, their daughter, Tia, and Tia’s friend from school, Berenice.
Tia Salika – One of the youngest to perish in this tragedy, Tia was reportedly celebrating her 17th birthday on the Conception. She was a student at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz.
Sunil Singh Sandhu — A citizen of Singapore who worked in Northern California as a senior scientist at PointCloud Inc.
Fernisa Sison – Like her husband, Michael Quitasol, Fernisa was a nurse who worked at the Kaiser medical offices in Stockton.
Ted Strom – A staff physician at the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center who was also an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Kristian Takvam – A vice president of engineering at Brilliant and coworker of Carrie McLaughlin.
Wei Tan – A 26-year-old from Singapore who lived in California and worked as a data scientist for Evidation Health.
Vaidehi Williams – An employee of the Soquel Creek Water District who gave presentations about water conservation to students and was a wife and mother of two.
Truth Aquatics – Santa Barbara | Conception Fire
Glen Fritzler owns Truth Aquatics, which operates out of Santa Barbara. Truth Aquatics has a fleet of three vessels: Conception, Truth and Vision.
Built in 1981, Conception was a 75-foot liveaboard scuba diving vessel where guests can eat and sleep between dive excursions. According to the vessel specs, the sleeping quarters have berths for 46 people.
At the time of the dive boat fire, Conception was chartered by a company called Finstads’ Worldwide Diving Adventures, a company based in Winters, California, that leads diving expeditions to the Channel Islands, Monterrey Bay, and other destinations.
Agencies Investigating the Conception Dive Boat Tragedy
Investigators executed search warrants as part of their investigation into the Conception tragedy, seizing evidence from Truth Aquatics including blueprints, maintenance records, and safety logs. The raid included searching the company’s two other boats, Truth and Vision.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, a preliminary investigation suggested safety lapses on Conception. Among the possible missing safety elements is a night watchman who is to be awake throughout the night and alert those on board about any dangers.
Investigators are also exploring the possibility that not all crew members were properly equipped to handle emergency situations.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Members of the NTSB are conducting a lengthy investigation into the fire. The agency says it will release a preliminary report approximately 10 days after the tragedy, with a full report coming as much as 24 months later. Investigators will interview survivors, examine the wreckage, analyze documents linked to the dive boat, conduct alcohol and drug tests on the crew, and tour the wreckage.
The Coast Guard has convened a Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) consisting of four members who will investigate the factors that led to the fire. The organization says the MBI will be detailed and could take more than a year to complete. An MBI is the Coast Guard’s highest level of marine casualty investigation.
Ventura County Fire
First responders at the scene will work with investigators to find, retrieve, and collect evidence, recreate scenes, and provide information about what they saw as they attempted to rescue the passengers and crew member on the Conception.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
Members of the ATF are at the site and will join in the investigation to determine what started the fire and where the blaze began on the boat. The ATF assists in investigations by reconstructing scenes, identifying a fire’s origin, and gathering criminal evidence where necessary.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. Coast Guard gave the Conception dive boat special exemptions from safety standards that require vessels to have a 32-inch-wide escape hatch and illuminated exit signs.
The Conception was one of roughly 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996 to receive exemptions from the safety standards the Coast Guard imposes on new vessels. Built in 1981, the Conception’s escape hatch was only 24 inches wide, and the vessel did not have illuminated exit signs, according to the Times report.
The latest report will likely add to the growing scrutiny surrounding the Coast Guard following one of the worst modern maritime disasters in California history. In early November, the Times issued another report stating that—for nearly two decades—the Coast Guard had often ignored NTSB recommendations aimed at improving fire safety measures.
The exemptions that the Conception and hundreds of other vessels received are likely to raise more questions.
The widow of a Conception boat fire victim filed the first wrongful death lawsuit today against Truth Aquatics. Christine Dignam—whose husband, Justin Dignam, died in the fire on September 2, 2019—filed a counterclaim contesting the suit Truth Aquatics filed just three days following the disaster.
Premised on the Limitation of Liability Act, the Truth Aquatics lawsuit seeks to shield the company and its owners from liability and to drastically limit the damages they might have to pay if they are found even partially at fault for the fatal fire.
Mrs. Dignam’s counterclaim makes the following allegations:
The Conception crew may have failed to maintain an anchor watch on the night of the fire.
The vessel’s escape hatch from the berthing area below deck may have been challenging to navigate.
The vessel’s onboard electrical charging station for battery-powered devices may have overloaded.
Mrs. Dignam’s lawsuit seeks damages for wrongful death, survival damages, funeral expenses, and punitive damages against Truth Aquatics.
Truth Aquatics, the company that owned the dive boat Conception, announced today on its website that it is suspending operations indefinitely. According to the statement, the company was continuing to receive inquiries for dive trips on two of its other vessels.
“With the continued calls and request for tours, we want to announce that we are officially suspending all operations of our Truth Aquatic fleet for a to-be-determined amount of time … Right now we feel it’s important to dedicate our entire efforts to make our boats models of new regulations that we will continue to work on with the NTSB and Coast Guard,” reads the Truth Aquatics statement.
Federal investigators are still probing the cause of the September 2 fire, which killed 33 passengers and a crew member. In its preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said all crew members were asleep when the fire broke out and spread, despite requirements to assign a night watchman. NTSB officials say it could take a year of more to determine the cause of the Conception fire.
Maritime accident attorney Clay Robbins III notes how important the Conception investigation is to victims’ families, as well as to future boating safety:
“Determining what caused the fire on the Conception is significant, not only to give these grieving families the answers they deserve, but also to help prevent the recurrence of such fires on charter dive boats and fishing boats in the future.
Of equal importance is determining why there was not a night watch posted at the time this fire broke out. Such a safeguard would (more probably than not) have allowed for the passengers to be warned in enough time for them to exit the bunk area. So, too, would adequate and functioning fire alarms.
Finally, escape routes that could be expected to accommodate the number of passengers on board should have been (but apparently were not) properly located and adequately marked, so that passengers in the bunk area at night could have saved themselves in the event of an emergency aboard the boat.
All these questions can be, and need to be, determined, regardless of the source of the fire. Maritime emergencies happen. There must always be safeguards in place to assure that an emergency does not lead to the catastrophic death of the passengers and crew of charter boats.”
Federal officials investigating the cause of the Conception dive boat fire are now focused on the series of outlets in the vessel’s galley where guests plugged in their cellphones, underwater cameras, lighting equipment, and other electronics.
Preliminary reports from the investigation suggest the fire, which killed 34 people, did not start in the engine room. Officials say there is growing evidence that the fire began in the galley. One of the crew members told investigators he believed the fire began with electrical devices that were charging there.
Last week, in response to the Conception fire, the U.S. Coast Guard issued new safety recommendations for passenger boats to “reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”
While the Conception passed Coast Guard inspections and the electrical system complied with federal guidelines, some experts say frayed or improperly connected wiring could have sparked the blaze. Others believe that the volume of electrical devices being charged at the same time could have overloaded the wiring, potentially creating enough heat to ignite the fire.
Officials will also be looking into the possibility that an exploding or smoldering lithium-ion battery, a mismatched charger, or a fraying connection cord may have caused the fire.
Investigators also have to figure out why the Conception’s smoke detectors did not alert the passengers and crew to the fire in time. According to the NTSB preliminary report, every member of the Conception’s crew was asleep before the fire was discovered; no one was keeping watch as required by Coast Guard regulations.
A Conception crew member who broke his leg attempting to save people from the burning dive boat filed a lawsuit last week against the vessel owners and charter company. The lawsuit alleges that the Conception was operating under dangerous conditions, and that the defendants did not have proper emergency evacuation procedures in place.
Conception crew member Ryan Sims filed the lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court on September 12 against Truth Aquatics, Worldwide Diving Adventures, and the Fritzler Family Trust. Glen Fritzler is the registered agent of Truth Aquatics. He and his family own the dive boat Conception. Worldwide Diving Adventures chartered the vessel over the Labor Day weekend.
Among other allegations, the lawsuit accuses Truth Aquatics of failing to properly maintain the vessel, failing to properly train its employees, and failing to provide adequate safety equipment and safety rules.
Glen Fritzler has already taken steps to shield himself and his family from liability. Less than a week after the dive boat fire killed 34 people, Glen and Dana Fritzler filed a lawsuit premised on The Limitation of Liability Act, seeking to limit or eliminate their financial liability.
Families of the 34 people killed in the Conception dive boat fire can seek compensation for counseling and funeral costs by contacting the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.
The California Victim Compensation Board designated the District Attorney Office’s victim witness program to help Conception boat fire victims seek funding for:
Applications for compensation
Counseling and other services
The California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB) is a state program that provides reimbursement for many crime-related expenses. Funding for the CalVCB comes from restitution paid by criminal offenders through fines, orders, penalty assessments, and federal funds.
Conception victims’ families are encouraged to contact the DA’s office by calling 805-568-2400 or toll free at 855-840-3242.
While it is good news that California is providing relief to victims’ families, the boating accident attorneys at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman want to remind the families to never sign anything that waives their legal rights. If you are unsure about seeking funding from CalVCB and would like to speak with an attorney, free of charge, please do not hesitate to call us at 800-827-0087.
Although the Conception dive boat passed annual Coast Guard inspections that ensured it was in compliance with regulations, safety expert John McDevitt says Conception was a “compliant fire trap.” McDevitt, an accredited marine surveyor and chairman of a national committee on commercial and pleasure boat fire protection, thinks the placement of the bunk room’s escape routes was problematic.
The boat was designed in 1981 by Roy Hauser, founder of Truth Aquatics, the company that owns Conception. The design is similar to that of many California dive boats, which does not necessarily mean the boats are safe.
No one sleeping below deck on Conception survived the blaze. While the stairs out of the sleeping quarters led to the galley, the escape hatch opened to a dining area adjacent to the galley, and both routes were blocked by the fire. Under federal regulations, boats like Conception must have at least two means of escape that “must be widely separated and, if possible, at opposite ends of the space to minimize the possibility of one incident blocking both escapes.”
McDevitt said the two escape routes should not have opened into adjacent areas, and that it seemed that more exit passages were called for, given the number of passengers on board.
On September 12, workers raised Conception to the surface and towed it to shore after lengthy delays caused by strong winds. It appears that only the hull and lower berths are still intact. According to reports, what remains of the ship will be taken to a secure location at a naval facility for examination by the Coast Guard, NTSB inspection teams, and others.
Investigators also said they found the remains of the final victim. The authorities have now accounted for all passengers and crew. Preliminary reports indicate that the victims all died of smoke inhalation.