NTSB – Fire on Passenger vessel CONCEPTION preliminary report


(www.MaritimeCyprus.com) On Monday, September 2, 2019, about 3:14 a.m. Pacific daylight time, US Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles/Long Beach received a distress call from the 75-foot commercial diving vessel Conception, with 39 persons on board. The Conception was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, Inc., based in Santa Barbara, California. The Conception was classified by the US Coast Guard as a small passenger vessel that took passengers on dive excursions in the waters around the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. The accident voyage was a three-day diving trip to the Channel Islands. On the last night of the voyage, the vessel was anchored in Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island, 21.5 nautical miles south-southwest of Santa Barbara, when it caught fire. Weather conditions were reported as slight to no winds with patchy fog, 2–3-foot seas, and air and water temperature about 65°F. The Conception was carrying 39 persons, 6 of which were crew. Thirty-three passengers and one crewmember died.

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its preliminary report on the 2 September fatal fire on the passenger vessel Conception off Santa Cruz Island. The preliminary report is purely factual, reaching no conclusion as to causation, but notes that all the vessel’s crew members were asleep when the fire broke out. 

The Conception dive boat, did not have a crewmember on roving overnight watch as required by its certificate, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report and NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

"A crewmember sleeping in the wheelhouse berths was awakened by a noise and got up to investigate," the report says. "He saw a fire at the aft end of the sun deck, rising up from the salon compartment below. The crewmember alerted the crew behind the wheelhouse. As crewmembers awoke, the captain radioed a distress message to the Coast Guard."
Sumwalt mentioned in an interview that the incident is a "horrible, horrible tragedy," calling it the deadliest marine accident in nearly 70 years and the "the most deadly transportation accident that we've seen in a decade."
"Part of the certificate for this vessel required that there be constantly a roving watch person to keep an eye on the safety of the vessel," Sumwalt said. "The interviews, to this point, have indicated that the five surviving crew members were in fact asleep at the time that the fire broke out."
He said investigators have no way of knowing whether an additional crew member and any of the passengers, who were all below deck and died, were awake.
An attorney for Truth Aquatics, owner of the Conception, said in a statement that a crewmember checked the area where the fire is believed to have been concentrated soon before it ignited, but the attorney did not point to any evidence the crewmember remained awake.
"We do have witness testimony that seems to contradict the notion that the entire crew was asleep," attorney Douglas Schwartz said in the statement. "We do know that one crewmember checked on and around the galley area at around 2:30 a.m., approximately 30 minutes before the fire broke out."
The remains of Conception was lifted onto a salvage barge Thursday, September 12, 2019.
The statement added that the company believes the fire "was not caused by the operator, the boat or the crew, who acted heroically and did all in their power to try and save the lives of the passengers and their fellow crew member."
The report describes how the surviving crewmembers say they attempted to reach the entryways to the passenger compartment, although their path was "blocked by fire."
One crewmember broke his leg in the process, and three crewmembers -- including the captain -- "swam to the stern" to check the engine room for flames but found none. The report came as experts are giving alarming safety assessments of small passenger and recreational vessels like Conception.
The preliminary report did not identify what may have caused the fire, and it made no recommendations for safety improvements. The NTSB typically waits until its investigation is completed to make recommendations.
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