Conception (#) (1981-2019), 75-foot commercial dive boat built in Long Beach in 1985, that operated out of Santa Barbara for 39 years. The Conception was owned by Glen Fritzler (59), Truth Aquatics Inc. Conception accommodated 46 people maximum, and had 13 double bunks and 20 single bunks. It had a range of 800 nautical miles.
The Conception burned and sank on September 2, 2019, resulting in the largest maritime tragedy in Channel Islands history. The vessel caught fire at Platt's [Dick's] Harbor, Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day Weekend, Monday, September 2, 2019. The 75' Conception, was anchored just off the north side Santa Cruz Island at Dick's Harbor in 65 feet of water when the U.S. Coast Guard and Ventura County Fire Department responded to a reported fire around 3:28 a.m. The captain, Jerry Boylan, and four additional male crew escaped; 1 crew and 33 diver-passengers aboard were asleep below decks when the fire occurred. By 8:30 a.m., the hull had sunk 20 yards offshore. A nearby private vessel, Grape Escape, Madera, CA, rescued the five male crew who managed to escape. They were awake at the time and jumped overboard. The cause of death to the 34 victims was most likely smoke inhalation. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the victims, 21 women and 13 men from 16 to 62 years old, appear to have died from smoke inhalation before they were burned.
Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on September 5, 2019 that uses a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law to limit their liability from any victims' claims. The lawsuit argues the company and owners Glen and Dana Fritzler made the boat seaworthy and the craft was properly manned and equipped. The suit said the company and owners “used reasonable care to make the Conception seaworthy, and she was, at all relevant times, tight, staunch, and strong, fully and properly manned, equipped and supplied and in all respects seaworthy and fit for the service in which she was engaged.” Such laws have their origins in 18th century England and are designed to encourage the shipping business. The U.S. law dates to 1851.
This is the most deadly disaster in Santa Barbara history — maritime or otherwise — 34 people died after the Conception violently burst into flames 20 yards from Santa Cruz Island, where it was moored in the early morning hours of Labor Day. Conception had been chartered for a multi-day Labor Day trip by Worldwide Diving Adventurers, based in Santa Cruz, California and owned by the Finstad family. Kristy Finstad was one of the passengers killed in the fire. Other passengers included two high-schoolers, a hairdresser, a marine biologist, software engineers, teachers, a special effects designer for Disney, a nature photographer, a nurse and a family of five celebrating a birthday.
The following dive deaths occurred off Conception prior to her fire and loss of 34 passengers on September 2, 2019:
September 2, 2019 survivors from the destruction by fire of Conception:
September 2, 2019 casualties from the destruction by fire of Conception:
- 1. Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz (26), Santa Barbara, CA galley cook and a part of the Conception crew
- 2. Kristy Finstad (41), Tamrick Pines, CA, (owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures)
- 3. Nicole Storm Quitasol (31), Imperial Beach, CA, CA (sister) (bartender)
- 4. Evanmichel Solano Quitasol (37), Stockton, CA (sister) (nurse at St. Joseph's Medical Center)
- 5. Angela Rose Quitasol (28), Stockton, CA (sister) (middle school science teacher)
- 6. Michel Storm Quitasol (62), Stockton, CA (father) birthday trip
- 7. Fernisa Sison, Stockton, CA (step-mother)
- 8. Raymond Scott Chan (59), Los Altos, CA (father) (physics teacher at American High School)
- 9. Kendra Chan (26), Oxnard, CA (daughter)
- 10. Lisa Fiedler (52), Mill Valley, CA (hair dresser and nature photographer) (went alone on the trip)
- 11. Patricia Ann Beitzinger (48), Chandler, AZ (couple)
- 12. Neal Gustav Baltz (42), Phoenix, AZ (couple)
- 13. Steve Salika (55), Santa Cruz, CA (husband, father of student at Pacific Collegiate High School, Apple employee)
- 14. Carol Dianna Adamic (60), Santa Cruz, CA (wife and mother of student at Pacific Collegiate High School)
- 15. Tia Salika-Adamic (17), Santa Cruz, CA (daughter and student at Pacific Collegiate High School) (17th birthday trip)
- 16. Berenice Felipe, Santa Cruz, CA (student at Pacific Collegiate High School traveling with the Salika family)
- 17. Dan Garcia (46), Berkeley, CA (husband; Apple employee)
- 18. Yulia Krashennaya (40), Berkeley, CA (wife)
- 19. Marybeth Guiney (51), Santa Monica, CA (sales director)
- 20. Charles “Chuck” McIlavain (44), Santa Monica, CA (visual effects designer for Walt Disney)
- 21. Kristian “Kristy” Takvam (34), San Francisco, CA (worked for the web company, Brilliant)
- 22. Caroline “Carrie” McLaughlin (35), Oakland, CA (worked for the web company, Brilliant)
- 23. Vaidehi Campbell (41), Felton, CA (worked for the Soquel Creek Water District)
- 24. Adrian Dahood-Fritz (40), Sacramento, CA (wife; CA state senior environmental scientist)
- 25. Andrew Fritz (40), Sacramento, CA (husband; photographer)
- 26. Wei Tan (26), Goleta, CA (Singaporean citizen, U.C. Berkeley graduate in industrial engineering)
- 27. Sunil Sandhu (46), San Francisco, CA (Singaporean citizen; Senior Scientist for the Pointcloud Inc. tech company based in San Francisco)
- 28. Kaustubh Nirmal (44), Stamford, Ct. (husband, accountant and Indian national)
- 29. Sanjeeri Deopujari (32), Stamford, CT (wife, dentist and Indian national)
- 30. Justin Carroll Dignam (58), Anaheim, CA
- 31. Ted Strom (62), Germantown, TN (Memphis, TN pathologist)
- 32. Xiang Lin (45), San Francisco Bay area, CA (artificial intelligence engineer)
In the News~
March 24, 2005 [Santa Maria Times]: “Boat stolen in S.B. beached at VAFB. A daring heist Wednesday left one boat under water after someone pilfered another vessel from Santa Barbara and apparently ran it aground more than 40 miles away on Vandenberg Air Force Base. Santa Barbara police said the errant captain hijacked the Conception, a 75-foot, steel-hulled vessel that had been moored inside the Santa Barbara Harbor. While navigating through the city marina toward open water, police said, the Conception is believed to have struck three other vessels, sinking the Slick Chick, a 70-foot wooden commercial fishing vessel. Valued at $1 million, Conception is a popular chartered dive boat owned by Truth Aquatics that often makes trips out to the Channel Islands, authorities said. A Stearns Wharf security guard witnessed Conception's theft, noticing the large white vessel's erratic path as it made for the high seas 7 or least the ocean waters beyond the harbor. "It does happen, but it/s fairly rare," Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Tony Migliorini said about the frequency of stolen boats. A "be-on-the-lookout" was broadcast over marine radio frequencies and somebody spotted Conception traveling north of Gaviota, hugging the coastline, about 10 a.m. A Coast Guard helicopter crew later found Conception beached on a remote South Base shoreline, between the base/s historic boat house and Jalama Beach. "We're pretty sure they drove it onto the beach and left the boat," said Migliorini. "We don't know why it went aground." Vandenberg's security forces secured the scene and searched the site to no avail, authorities said. Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, Slick Chick's owner arrived soon after the collision to find his vessel sinking from damage below the water line. With pumps unable to dump water fast enough, Slick Chick slowly sank to the harbor floor, resting at a 45-degree angle in 20 feet of water with masts and rigging tangled with another vessel. It wasn't until 7 a.m. that the Conception's owner confirmed its disappearance, police said. Authorities don/t yet have an estimate of the damage costs.”
March 25, 2005 [Lompoc Record]: “A man described as a homeless drifter has been arrested in connection with the theft of a large commercial dive boat stolen early Wednesday morning from the Santa Barbara Harbor. Donald Patrick Kelley, 41, is believed to be a drifter who recently arrived in Santa Barbara, police said. Kelley is suspected of stealing the Conception and sailing it north to where it was beached at a remote section of Vandenberg Air Force Base. The errant captain damaged three other boats, sinking one, before leaving the Santa Barbara Harbor. Military security found Kelley within one-quarter mile of the vessel and detained him for Santa Barbara Police, who reportedly found food items believed stolen from the Conception's galley.”
DISASTER OF THE CONCEPTION, SEPTEMBER 2, 2019
September 2, 2019 [CNN]: “ Coast Guard can't board the boat yet because the fire continues to re-flash Coast Guard Senior Chief Aaron Bemis told CNN the fire on the boat keeps re-flashing, hampering efforts to board the boat and look for survivors. “It keeps being extinguished and re-flashing, possibly due to the amount of fuel on board. Unsure why, but it's consistently being put out and re-flashing,” Bemis said. “Multiple coast guard and local Ventura County Fire Department assets on scene, but we're not able to yet breach the hull and see if there's any survivors at this point,” Bemis said. Bemis could not confirm any fatalities, “I'm unaware of any survivors at this time, and I'm also no confirmed casualties at this time. It's too early to tell.” "It's a 75-foot commercial dive vessel that reportedly had 39 people on board. The five crew members able to disembark because they were in the main cabin. The 34 passengers were below decks," Bemis added. "The report we got was they were trapped by the fire. The fire was so intense that even after it was put out, we're not able to actually embark the vessel and, you know, look for survivors at this point. It's still ongoing," he said.”
September 2, 2019 [CNN]: “Boat sank 20 yards offshore while crews were fighting the blaze. The Conception was 20 yards offshore when it sank in 64 feet of water while crews tried to extinguish the fire, the Coast Guard said in a press release. Crews from the Coast Guard, Santa Barbara Fire Department, Ventura County Fire Department and Vessel Assist all responded after a mayday call went out after 3 a.m. today. The vessel currently has a portion of the bow sticking out of the water, the Coast Guard said. More than 30 people were onboard. Five crew members have been rescued. There are “numerous fatalities” according to Bill Nash, Ventura County PIO.”
September 2, 2019 [Daily Beast]: “Horror at Sea. OXNARD, California—Thirty-four people are missing after an inferno ripped through a 75-foot dive boat near Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Southern California early Monday. The fire broke out on the Conception, owned by Truth Aquatics, around 3:00 a.m. PST, while it was anchored overnight only about 20 yards off Platts Harbor, officials said. Firefighters were still trying to douse the flames when the vessel sank in 60-foot waters. Five crew members were awake and on the bridge when the flames began to consume the wood-hulled vessel and they jumped off, officials said. They were rescued by the pleasure boat Grape Escape—but as the hours passed, the worst was feared for the others who were apparently trapped. “The word I have received, is that they were below decks asleep,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester said at a morning press conference. “Right now they are conducting shoreline searches for any available survivors.” Bob Hansen, the owner of Grape Escape, told The Daily Beast that he and his wife were out on the water for the weekend, anchored in a cove on Santa Cruz Island, when they heard pounding on their boat. “I put on some shorts and walked outside and open the door and here’s five guys in a little rubber boat and a 75-foot commercial boat on fire. It was really on fire... the whole thing engulfed in flames. “The flames were shooting up 25 feet. I felt so helpless. It’s just burning. There were five tanks that were blowing up—or we thought there were—these big pops.” Hansen brought the five crew members on board; one had a badly broken leg. He radioed the Coast Guard and waited for them to arrive before ferrying the crew back to land, watching the scene unfold in horror. “You can only imagine the tragedy. It’s horrendous,” Hansen added. “There are some things you. can’t unsee.” The Coast Guard struggled to put out the fire. “It keeps being extinguished and re-flashing,” Coast Guard Senior Chief Aaron Bemis told CNN. Several hours later, the burning hulk sank, leaving its bow pointing out of the water. The names of the passengers were not immediately released, and their relatives were anxiously awaiting news. Shayna Kreps, who lives in the Bay Area, told The Daily Beast one of her family members was on the trip. She said they learned of the disaster on the news. “We're angry that we’re unable to get any information,” she said. The cause of the blaze was unknown, but because it was a diving trip, there could have been air tanks on board exploding and reigniting the flames. The FBI was on the scene and the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a crew to the site. The Coast Guard said the vessel was “in complete compliance” and that the owner was cooperating with the operation and investigation. Truth Aquatics’ fleet is custom-designed for diving, according to its website, which says the company “caters to divers or ocean enthusiasts seeking a stress-free getaway.” A calendar of events on the website indicated a three-day, $665 Labor Day weekend trip was scheduled and being run by Worldwide Diving Adventures. “Divers have the unique opportunity to explore the pinnacles of San Miguel Island,” World Diving wrote of the trip. “The beginning of September is the best time to be at San Miguel Island, which see strong winds and swell during much of the year.” Efforts to reach Truth Aquatics and Worldwide Diving were unsuccessful. But the founder of Truth Aquatics, who has been retired for years, was stunned by the tragedy. “I spent 40 years running boats and we never had a fire... I'm just flabbergasted,” Roy Hauser told The Daily Beast, adding that he commissioned the Conception in 1980 and that it had undergone “tremendous remodeling” in the last three years. Hauser wondered whether something electrical could have sparked the blaze given that it happened in the dead of night. “The galley wouldn't be open at that hour... The generator is running all the time. There'd be no cooking activity at 4 o’clock in the morning. The crew only starts getting everything ready at 5:30 in the morning.” Specifications for the vessel on the Truth Aquatics website showed it can accommodate 46 people—13 in double bunks and 20 in single bunks.”
September 2, 2019 [LAT]: “In an SOS call alerting authorities to the fire aboard a boat in the Channel Islands off Ventura County early Monday, the caller said he could not breathe and that there was no escape hatch for those below the deck sleeping. Coast Guard officials said four bodies have been recovered and up to 30 people are believed to be missing after a 75-foot commercial diving boat erupted in flames near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island. Those on board were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out in the predawn hours. Authorities continued their search Monday for possible survivors as the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s coroner office prepared for a mass casualty incident. Man, around 3:15 a.m.: “Mayday, mayday, mayday! ... Conception ... north side of Santa Cruz.” (He’s broken up by static.) Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach dispatcher asks position and number of people on board. Man: “I can’t breathe.” ... (garbled) Dispatcher: “You have 29 persons on board and you can’t breathe? What is your current GPS position?” (Another man calls in who heard the distress call and is over by Anacapa Island.) There’s some garbled space and back-and-forth for a few minutes as dispatchers try to reach anyone from the boat. man can be heard: “Vessel Conception! Vessel Conception! Vessel Conception!” ... Dispatch: “Your vessel is on fire? Is that correct? ... Are you on board the Conception?” Man: “Roger, there’s 33 people that’s on board the vessel that’s on fire. They can’t get off.” Dispatch: “Roger, are they locked inside the boat? Roger, can you get back on board and unlock the boat, unlock the door so they can get off? Roger, you don’t have any firefighting gear, no fire extinguishers or anything?” Dispatch: “Roger, is this the captain of the Conception?” Man: “Roger” Dispatch: “Was that all the crew that jumped off?” Man: “Roger” Dispatch: “Is the vessel fully engulfed now?” Man: “Roger, and there’s no escape hatch for any of the people on board.” Five crew members were already awake and jumped off the boat, which was 20 yards offshore of the north side of Santa Cruz Island, according to Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. The five crew members were rescued by a good Samaritan boat, the Grape Escape, according to the agency. Two of them sustained leg injuries.”
September 4, 2019 [LAT]: “Final hours on the Conception: Diving, birthday parties, then horrific fire. It was a quiet night in Platts Harbor, near Santa Cruz Island. Shirley Hansen and her husband, Bob, had spent the day on the water and anchored their fishing boat Grape Escape in the cove. They cooked a calico bass Shirley had caught and went to bed. Then, they were woken by a loud thumping noise on the side of their 60-foot vessel. “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.” Outside in a dinghy were crew members from the Conception, a 75-foot commercial diving boat that had erupted in flames. The men were wet, distraught, some wearing just underwear. One man appeared to have broken his leg, Shirley Hansen said. Another had injured his ankle, she said. By the time the dinghy arrived at the Hansens’ boat, the Conception was engulfed in flames, said Bob Hansen. “As it was burning, there would be explosions going off every couple of minutes,” Hansen said. “It was probably some of the dive tanks exploding. It made me feel so helpless.” The Hansens were among the first witnesses to the pre-dawn tragedy aboard the Conception, which caught fire near the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island early Monday. Many aboard were thought to be sleeping below deck when the fire broke out. As of early Tuesday, authorities said at least 15 people had been confirmed dead and others were still missing. One of the five crew members who escaped to the Hansens’ boat was the ship’s captain, Shirley Hansen said. She said he gave his name as Jerry. (Separately, a photographer told The Times that Jerry Boylan was usually the captain of the Conception.) The sudden arrival of the crew members was surprising to the Hansens not only because of the early hour, about 3:30 a.m., but also because the Madera couple thought they were alone in the cove. Shirley Hansen said she and her husband gave the crew members blankets and clothes. Some of the men were crying, one telling them that his girlfriend was still below deck on the Conception. Another man described how the crew had celebrated three passengers’ birthdays hours earlier, including that of a 17-year-old girl who was on the diving trip with her parents. She said two of the crew members got back in the dinghy to see if anyone had jumped overboard. “But they came back and there was no one that they found,” she said. Hansen said there was so much smoke from the fire that she had an asthma attack and had to use her inhaler. “You could see the fire from the windows from our boat,” she said. “It wasn’t far.” The Hansens brought the most injured crew member ashore, where he was put into an ambulance, she said. The man who identified himself as the captain stayed behind with the Coast Guard, Hansen said. Hansen said she and her husband used their boat to catch tuna, marlin and sailfish. They recently brought the vessel up to Oxnard. She described feeling helpless as she and her husband tried to aid the crew members and watched the fireball across the water. “There are a lot of questions to be answered,” she said. “We don’t feel like good Samaritans,” she added. “We just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
September 4m 2019 [Spectrum News 1]: “"I'm Numb": Boat Owner on Deadly Fire Near Santa Cruz Island. VENTURA, Calif. — The owner of the vessel "Conception" talked exclusively Tuesday morning with Spectrum News 1 about a deadly fire on his boat Monday off the Southern California coast. "I'm numb," said owner and operator Glen Fritzler of Truth Aquatics Inc. in a phone interview. "There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I had dealt with for decades." There were 39 people on the 75-foot commercial vessel when it caught fire around 3:30 a.m. Monday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Five crew members were able to evacuate. Twenty people have been confirmed dead as of Tuesday morning. The group was on a diving trip for Labor Day weekend. "Of all of the years I've been in this business, I've never seen or heard of anything like this," Fritzler told Spectrum News 1. "It's a complete tragedy. It's horrible." He said the company will shut down operations for a couple weeks out of respect for the families involved. "We all have so many questions at this point," he said. "We need answers like the public needs answers." Truth Aquatics has a fleet custom designed for diving, according to the company website. It began working with Channel Islands National Park in 1998. Below is more from my interview with Fritzler.
- Brunell: "What do you want the public to know?"
- Fritzler: "I want people to know that there [are] two entrances into the bunking area: a main entrance and an emergency escape hatch. I want people to know that the area, the salon that people enter into the boat to access the area, there were no doors. It's a wide open doorway and no doors. There were no locked doors anywhere ... We did lose a crewman that was below deck, stationed down below decks with passengers, perished as well as best as we know ... That was the only reason that any of the crews survived is they were on the upper deck and the flames reached up there and they had to make a large leap off the boat to escape the boat ... I want them to know that a couple of the crewmen swam to the stern of the boat, that could not access any of the fire hoses because they were engulfed."
- Brunell: "I understand that people also think that the mayday calls were made from outside of the boat. Were they made on the dinghy or were they made in the wheelhouse?"
- Fritzler: "They were made in the wheelhouse. He made two calls. The second call where you can hear him say, "I can't breathe." That was the second call. At that point he had to jump off the boat. The other crewmen were already off the boat. The captain was the last to leave the boat trying to Radio Coast Guard."
- Brunell: "What do you think about the speculations and the people out there who think the crew bailed on the passengers?"
- Fritzler: "There is no way. They did everything in their power to help, but the flames just spread. That's the investigation. Nobody understands why this fire spread like it did ... The investigation has to continue, but you know, we're all so surprised. We also have to remember this boat's been in operation since 1981. It's taken thousands upon thousands of people out over that period of time with no fire incidents whatsoever."
- Brunell: "Is it surprising to you that so many people were not able to get out? I mean, can a fire spread that quickly on a boat that there would be no time for anyone to leave that bunk area?"
- Fritzler: "Yes to both. I am utterly surprised, and the only thing that I can possibly conceive is that people suffocated quickly. The smoke, well I guess it was billowing."
- Brunell: "Have you spoken to your crew and the captain that was on the boat? How are they doing? How are they feeling?"
- Fritzler: "They're feeling horrible. I'm sure it's survivor's guilt. One of our crewmen was lost in this incident as well. They're a wreck. They're an emotional wreck."
- Brunell: "Is there any type of accelerant on the boat? I know that the tanks are very flammable, but was there any propane or anything else that would cause this type of fire?"
- Fritzler: "No. On the back deck, that was one of the last things to burn, there [were] some oxygen bottles that the divers use. The rest of the scuba tanks are just air, or what we call Nitrox, which is a higher concentration. It's a 32 percent concentration that divers use, but it's a low oxygen count and they were out on the back deck and that was the last to burn. As far as the accelerant inside the boat, there is no gas, no propane, no diesel. It's all electric."
- Brunell: "How trained are people, are your crew members, to deal with an explosion or a rapidly moving fire?"
- Fritzler: "They're all well-trained. They're all mariners. They're all trained, and you know, unfortunately we didn't have access to any of the firefighting equipment."
- Brunell: "Is there anything else that you think the company or these boats could have been equipped with that would've prevented this?"
- Fritzler: "No. Honestly not at all. If that was the case, I would've done it because we are a top-notch company, and I've invested my entire life into this company, and I take it very seriously and that will be disclosed. I'm sure through Coast Guard records, the Coast Guard has the utmost respect for our operation and what we do ... I'm sure something's going to be learned from this ... Unfortunately, these kinds of accidents, regardless if it's a boat or an airplane, we learn from them and there will be something learned, and it's a very, very unfortunate event. We're all sickened by it, and the entire crew and staff is. Words can't convey."
September 4, 2019 [Independent]: “Search and recovery divers with the Santa Barbara County Sheriffs’ Office and other law enforcement agencies have now recovered the bodies of 33 of the 34 people killed when a sudden fire engulfed the Conception, a 75-foot-long charter dive boat moored 20 yards off the coast of Santa Cruz Island early the morning of September 2. That leaves one individual still to be accounted for. The County Coroner’s Office is equipped to handle no more than 20 corpses at any given time, and the Los Angeles medical examiner has provided a couple of mobile coolers and medical examiners to help determine the identities of the victims and the causes of death. Search and recovery dives will continue; underwater conditions are reportedly favorable. Divers with the FBI and Los Angeles County Sheriff are assisting in the undertaking; logistical support is being provided by the Coast Guard, the National Parks Service, San Luis Obispo Sheriff, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, and the City of Long Beach Police Department.”
September 4, 2019 [Independent]: “When the Worst Case Comes to Pass: Death Aboard the Conception. 34 Perish in Fire on Board Dive Boat in the Santa Barbara Channel. Thirty-four dead. A furious flash fire on the high seas in the black of night. It happened in the early morning hours of Monday, September 2, Labor Day — all within 20 yards of Santa Cruz Island. Five crew members managed to escape with their lives. They’d been sleeping upstairs on the top deck.
Everyone else slept in bunks on the lowest of the boat’s three levels. That’s where the rocking of the sea intrudes the least on a good night’s sleep. The fire was so hot, it cut clean through the anchor line. Were it not for the intervention of TowBoatUS a k a Vessel Assist, a private company offering “roadside assistance,” the boat, the Conception, would have drifted. We don’t know most of their identities. Their stories — and their names — will slowly be released in the days ahead. That’s when authorities will start matching DNA samples taken from bodies marked by what Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown has described as “extreme thermal damage” with the same genetic material volunteered by anxious relatives of those whose names appeared on the ship’s manifest. As of this writing, 30 families have contacted the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office. Thirty-four dead. By the standards of Santa Barbara catastrophes, 34 deaths is the worst there’s ever been. The Thomas Fire and debris flow combined claimed 25 casualties. The earthquake of 1925 claimed 13 lives. Exactly what triggered this fire, no one knows. Every government agency with enough initials to contribute to the alphabet soup is investigating that question. Even the FBI is on the case, though there’s no evidence to suggest anything “criminal or nefarious,” as Lt. Erik Raney of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office put it. On Tuesday, the first of 16 agents with the National Transportation Safety Board descended on Santa Barbara. They have designated the Conception disaster a “major marine casualty incident.” After just under 24 hours, the search for possible survivors had been called off; the search for the bodies commenced. Of the victims, we know little: A family of five from Stockton. A couple of kids — and their accompanying parents — from a charter school in Santa Cruz. The 41-year-old co-owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures, the Santa Cruz–based company that chartered the boat. And a 26-year-old woman who’d only recently started working for Truth Aquatics, the Santa Barbara charter boat company that owned and custom built the 75-foot-long Conception. They were all on board for a three-day diving excursion to explore the waters off the Channel Islands. They’re here, they announced at a Tuesday press conference, to determine what went wrong and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. To that end, they will interview the five surviving crew members, the companies involved, the first responders, and the Good Samaritan couple, Bob and Shirley Hansen, who offered safe haven for the surviving crew on their boat, the Grape Escape. They’ll also digest every report written on the incident by the more than 12 government agencies engaged thus far. The final report, they said, could take two years to finish. But they should know what happened within 10 days. That’s when they expect to be able to release a preliminary report. The first Mayday alert was reported at 3:30 in the morning of September 2. The message was garbled and frantic; the boat was fully engulfed in flames. The second Mayday alert came from the Hansens on the Grape Escape, who reportedly said they heard explosions. The five crew members who had managed to escape, in a rubber dinghy that had been attached to the stern of the Conception, paddled to Hansen’s boat, which was just a few hundred yards away from their burning boat. Several of them then returned to the Conception to look for survivors, but none were found. The Coast Guard, along with firefighting boats from Ventura and Santa Barbara, were on hand within 40 minutes. But by 7:20 a.m., the Conception had sunk. As of this writing, 33 bodies have been recovered. The Conception is reportedly capsized 65 feet below the ocean’s surface on the north side of Santa Cruz Island; trying to get it out of the water will be a major engineering ordeal. With the vessel turned upside down, heavy equipment on board could come unhinged, which made recovery efforts dangerous, especially for divers searching for the missing bodies around the sunken boat. Also alarming — for a host of environmental reasons — is the 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel the Conception had carried. It’s not known how much remains in the damaged vessel, but the possibility that the fuel could begin leaking into the waters around the sensitive marine habitat is of serious concern. Whether the explosions caused the fire or the fire caused the explosions, Sheriff Brown takes pains to stress, no one knows. He’s not even certain there is definitive evidence that there was an explosion. Almost everyone along Santa Barbara’s waterfront — now occupied by a multitude of TV news trucks — has a theory. Some suggest a generator failure. Others — more intriguingly — wonder if lithium ion batteries that were most likely recharging in the Conception’s mid-level galley might have provided both the fuse and the dynamite needed to ignite the ferocious conflagration. Such batteries are now commonly used for powering photo and video equipment. Most airline companies refuse to allow lithium ion batteries to be checked in with luggage. In 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration was aware of 46 “incidents” involving lithium ion equipment. While canisters of oxygen and nitrox — a nitrogen-oxygen combination used by divers — are neither flammable nor explosive by themselves, their contents could help turn a small flame into a big fire in a hurry. What we know is that to escape from the bunk room, the passengers would have had to go up through the mid-level galley to reach the deck above. But according to Sheriff Brown, smoke and flames had blocked that escape route as well as the path to two escape hatches. The crew reportedly all but hectored passengers about these safety features. As Senator Dianne Feinstein noted in calling for a federal investigation, boats — even the best — are inadequately engineered and new rules may be necessary. What we know is that to escape from the bunk room, the passengers would have had to go up through the mid-level galley to reach the deck above. But according to Sheriff Brown, smoke and flames had blocked that escape route as well as the path to two escape hatches. The crew reportedly all but hectored passengers about these safety features. As Senator Dianne Feinstein noted in calling for a federal investigation, boats — even the best — are inadequately engineered and new rules may be necessary. For people familiar with Truth Aquatics, it all makes absolutely no sense. A charter dive boat company started 35 years ago, Truth Aquatics has long enjoyed a reputation for scrupulous — ruthless, even — attention to safety details. Its customers sing the company’s praises, as do they for Jerry Boylan, captain of the Conception — one of three charter boats Truth Aquatics owns and operates. Longtime fisherman Nick Voss, familiar with the boat, the company, and the captain, praised the operation. “It’s so well-run, so clean, so tight,” he said. “Their boats are just so immaculate. You could eat off the engine.” What we do know comes courtesy of Sheriff Brown and U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester. The boat had passed its annual fire-safety inspections. It was equipped with working fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. Likewise, there were two functioning escape hatches leading to the deck from the bottom level, where passengers slept on triple-decker bunk beds. And no, they both stressed, there were no locked doors keeping passengers trapped in their bunks down below. There are, in fact, no locked doors anywhere on the boat. In the meantime, members of the crew are keeping their distance from media inquiries for a host of legal and emotional reasons that seem self-evident. The Santa Barbara Coroner’s Office, which has received the recovered bodies, is now at its maximum capacity. The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner dispatched a couple of mobile cooling units and some staff to help with the process of determining the identities of the victims and their causes of death. Lt. Raney stated the condition of the victims’ bodies varies. Not all, he said, require DNA testing to determine identity. Teams of divers from at least four different law enforcement agencies scoured the ocean floor for the remains of the passengers, and the search continues for the 34th. “This is probably the worst-case scenario,” said Sheriff Bill Brown.”
September 7, 2019 [VCS]: “Racing to help: Ventura towboat captain relives boat fire tragedy. The dive boat was being swallowed by flames. People were trapped inside.
The news from a towboat network's dispatcher woke Paul Amaral in his Ventura home. It was 3:35 a.m. on Labor Day. He threw on clothes, jumped in his truck and ran through red lights, racing toward Ventura Harbor.
Amaral owns TowBoatUS Ventura, a marine version of AAA. He tows disabled vessels, salvages boats from the sea and responds to search-and-rescue calls. He has even helped rescue a whale or two. This was different. The 56-year-old Ventura man raced toward Santa Cruz Island in his high-speed boat, Retriever II. He listened on the vessel's radio to the trauma-stricken voices of crew members who had escaped the fire by jumping into the ocean. The glow of the flames was visible miles away. Initial reports would be clarified in the days to come. Of 39 people who embarked on a dive adventure out of Santa Barbara Harbor, 34 were trapped in the boat. They died. What Amaral knew at the moment was he needed to get there as quickly possible. He raced across the sea in the dark at nearly 50 mph. People on a Channel Islands Harbor Patrol boat were trying to douse the flames. A Coast Guard boat and one or two Good Samaritan vessels were in the area, too. The Grape Escape craft that had rescued five crew members was headed to the mainland. The fire burned through the anchor rope of the Conception. The boat drifted up against the rocks off the island's shore, out of reach of firefighters. Amaral navigated his boat close enough to the Conception's bow to hurl a grappling hook aboard. He neither heard nor saw any signs of life. "You can't help but think what is inside there — the souls inside the boat," he said Friday, closing his eyes as he sat in his small waterside office at Ventura Harbor. The hook caught and held. Amaral towed the smoke-spewing Conception away from the rocks back into the water. Earlier, he used his spotlight to search the shoreline for survivors. He found no one. After the boat sank, he searched through the debris that was emerging. Bodies were there, too. Four of them were recovered while Amaral was there. "Those images will be there for the rest of my life," he said. He piloted his boat back to Ventura Harbor. The adrenaline wore off. The magnitude of what he had seen took grip. He thought of the families of the people on the boat. He thought of their pain. People asked him if he was OK. He understood their intent but it felt, in the moment, like the questions were misdirected. He didn't lose anybody. "It's almost like a survivor's guilt," he said. Amaral won't speculate on causes of the tragedy. He told of how he responded to a call in August of a powerboat that was taking on water near Santa Barbara Island. The Vision — a sister boat of Conception also operated by Truth Aquatics — rescued the craft's six passengers. "They're out there willing to help others," he said. Amaral won't be directly involved in the salvage of Conception. He is ready to play a support role. He said the efforts will be complicated because the fire gutted and weakened the boat. Its diesel fuel represents a potential pollutant. "The boat is laying upside down," he said. "... Once they roll it, they have to lift and get it on the barge." He posted videos of the tragedy on his company's Facebook page. The images still play on a loop in his mind, too. "It's still there," he said, noting the intensity of the memories depends on the day and activity. He planned to attend the Santa Barbara vigil four days after the fire. He hoped to talk to family members of victims. "Just to express the sorrow I feel for their loss," he offered as an explanation. "To let them know that everything was done that could have been done to try to save lives." ”