In one of the most horrific marine disasters in recent memory, the dive vessel Conception burst into flames in the early morning hours on Monday, September 1, 2019, claiming all 33 passengers and one crew member. The boat was home-ported in Santa Barbara and was halfway through a three-day dive charter when it caught fire and subsequently sank. As of Tuesday morning, emergency crews from the Coast Guard, Ventura County Police, Santa Barbara Fire Department and local volunteers found at least 25 bodies, leaving nine people still missing, the AP reported.
When the fire started, the boat was anchored close to shore off Santa Cruz Island. It is believed that the passengers were asleep in their berths resting up for dives scheduled the following day. Witness accounts indicate that five of the six crew were able to abandon ship and were pulled from the water by a fishing boat in the area. The mayday call the captain placed was from the rescue vessel, not the Conception. This reinforces the idea that the fire was more likely the result of an explosion requiring those persons above-decks to abandon ship immediately.
The vessel configuration had the crew berthing one deck above the passenger berthing area. All 33 passengers were housed in a large space below the main deck. It appears there was only one passageway for escape from the lower deck and none of the passengers were able to escape. The sole escape route was a curved staircase that led up to the galley area above. However, according to Bruce Rausch, 69, a frequent guest aboard the Conception and veteran of at least 12 dive trips, there was an additional escape hatch situated above one of the bunks and led to the salon deck, which included the galley. That hatch is, “…on a ceiling of the bunk room or the floor of the galley” according to Rausch. Witnesses reported hearing a number of explosions coming from the engulfed boat, but authorities say it’s too early to say what exactly caused the fire. Reports noted that the cause of the explosions could have been scuba or propane tanks on the Conception.
In photographs of the berthing area, the bunks appear to be made of wood, with curtains, pillows, and mattresses all adding to the fire hazard. When Class-A materials like that catch fire, the biggest threat is smoke, not flames. Smoke builds up fast. It thickens first in the overhead and then quickly descends to deck level. If there was an escape hatch in the overhead, it would have been immediately blocked and anyone trying to open it likely would have been choked by the buildup of heat and smoke near the overhead.
At this point, we know very little about the cause of the fire and/or explosion leading to the mass casualty. It is safe to say that even a trained professional would have had a hard time crawling to a single egress point in the midst of nearly three dozen panicking passengers in a dark, smoke-filled space. In the coming days, weeks and months, the NTSB should be able to answer questions about the cause of the fire and the resultant mass mortality.
The Conception was one of three dive boats operated by Truth Aquatics, a California-based dive operator. Their other boats are the Vision and the Truth.
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