Diving boat fire near Santa Cruz Island leads to tragic loss of life

There were 39 people onboard Conception when flames engulfed the boat on Labor Day.

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND-A well-known boat out on a Labor Day Weekend diving trip near Santa Cruz Island with 39 passengers and crew members on board went up in flames in the pre-dawn hours of Labor Day, leading to an unimaginable, tragic loss in life. It is believed that all 33 passengers and one crew member onboard were killed.

There are always dangers when being out on the water, but nothing brings more shock and heartbreak than tragedy at sea. Members of The Log family send their heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of all the victims, as well as the entire Southern California diving community. That feeling has been echoed by many through a makeshift memorial at Santa Barbara Harbor. What happened before dawn on Conception, a Santa Barbara Harbor mainstay, is a reminder of what could unexpectedly go wrong while you are out on the water.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Santa Barbara County Fire and Sheriff’s departments are still investigating the incident. Many questions remain unanswered at this point including the cause; The Log will follow the developments in the investigation.

So far, it is clear that once the flames started, it was too late for any of the passengers below deck to escape. Five crew members survived, Coast Guard officials said they were on the top deck at the time of the incident and jumped overboard. The rest of the passengers were reported to be below deck asleep when the blaze broke out. As of Sept. 4, search and recovery divers had recovered 33 victims. The rescuers said there were no signs of additional survivors.

What’s not as clear, is what, if anything, could have been done to prevent such a tragedy. Coast Guard officials said that the vessel was in full compliance with inspections and other regulations, which included requirements the boat be equipped with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Coast Guard officials also said the boat’s captain is required to conduct extensive safety briefings before the boat departs from the dock.

The Associated Press reported a 2016 inspection resulted in owners replacing the heat detector in the galley and one in 2014 cited a leaky fire hose. The AP reported records show all safety violations from the last five years were quickly addressed by the boat’s owners.

The boat was scheduled for a three-day diving excursion “to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island,” over the Labor Day weekend, according to Worldwide Diving Adventures’ website. The 75-foot commercial diving boat based out of the Santa Barbara Harbor departed Aug. 31 and was due back on the evening of Sept. 2. At about 3:30 a.m. Sept. 2, mayday calls reported a raging fire onboard. Those mayday calls included information that is still being investigated, including a statement that doors to the lower decks were locked and a reported explosion after the flames had already broken out.

“There is no indication at this point in the investigation that there was an explosion that preceded this fire,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said during a Sept. 3 press conference.

Coast Guard officials said there are no doors to bunk rooms, only curtains.

The crew members who survived paddled in a dinghy to a private boat anchored near the north shore of Santa Cruz Island.

Conception had been chartered by Worldwide Diving Adventures, which says on its website that it has been taking divers on such expeditions since the 1970s.

Contact the Coast Guard at 310-521-4260 or 310-781-0619 for updates. The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department can be reached at 805-568-3400.

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7 thoughts on “Diving boat fire near Santa Cruz Island leads to tragic loss of life

  • September 5, 2019 at 11:00 am
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    I managed to get ahold of a deck plan for Conception. There are the stairs forward, and a hatch aft in the bunk room. It looks like both required exits from the bunk room went through the galley area. If the fire started in the galley area, and it was fully engulfed by the time people woke up, their only exit would be into the flames. It seems to me that the requirement that there be two exits should be modified that each exit empties into separate spaces or onto the deck. Having both exits empty into the area that is most likely to have a fire (galley) is flawed at best.

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    • September 5, 2019 at 11:00 pm
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      I absolutely agree

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  • September 6, 2019 at 3:47 am
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    A CREW MEMBER SHOULD STAY AWAKE IN THE GALLEY ALL NIGHT…

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  • September 6, 2019 at 7:19 pm
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    If there was an explosion on board, it does not sound like it started in the galley unless the appliances are gas fired, i.e. propane. The galley in most vessels like Conception are electric, and to power these appliances there must be a diesel generator to handle the load. So if was an explosion in the middle of the night it would lead me to think that a generator was running and had a mechanical failure that lead to a high enough temperature to ignite the fuel supply, maybe locked pump or bearing failure. Whatever the cause it seems that if there are people below decks that can be trapped all potential fire hazards have to be eliminated. No running gensets, electrical systems turned off at the source, breaker panel.And maybe an escape hatch that does not lead through the vessel. Everything should be turned off when every one is asleep.
    The layout on this boat is the same as most large charter boats in Southern Cal. Something needs to be changed.

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  • September 7, 2019 at 3:02 pm
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    Although the Santa Cruz/Conception boat fire event likely progressed more rapidly than could have been mitigated due to a host of facts, this tragedy serves as a clarion call to governmental leaders for enhancements to the fire defensive posture by local/state government in California and State Fire Training/State Fire Marshal to develop a modern training curriculum for marine firefighting. This could be used as a platform for agencies tasked with legitimate jurisdictional authority for marine firefighting duties to begin to deploy adequate and capable resources needed for vessel fires so as to properly protect human life.

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    • September 8, 2019 at 6:05 am
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      While it is noble to proclaim that marine fire fighting training be improved, no fire rescue boat could have saved any lives in this situation. The boat was engulfed in flames and lives lost long before any boat could arrive. The solution, therefore, lies in the prevention of this tragedy.
      All accidents are caused by a series of events, we must outline these and break this chain, if we are to prevent reoccurrence.

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      • September 8, 2019 at 10:50 am
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        The solution lies in a comprehensive approach to the protection of people who may find themselves in an unfamiliar environment during an emergency. Simply proclaiming prevention as a solution fails to understand the nature of emergencies in general.
        Research suggests that there is no such thing as an “accident,” only a series of events not properly addressed that lead to unintended outcome. While this situation was likely overwhelming for the passengers it is also as likely that standards are available that may have prevented this unfortunate event. However, one standard that does not exist is a benchmark on marine firefighting for agencies tasked with firefighting duties in California. Due to the myriad of challenges on a vessel, i.e., combustible structure, confined space hazards, redundant electrical systems, and vessels loaded with combustible and flammable liquids serve to create daunting challenges for even the most seasoned fire fighter. This must change if adequate capability is the desired result.
        Because there are numerous boats already built, and jurisdictional authority complicates a reliable fire prevention approach it is unlikely that this approach alone will have the intended influence in the near term.

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