Conception (#638133) (1981-2019), 75-foot commercial dive boat built in Long Beach in 1981, that operated out of Santa Barbara for 39 years. The Conception was owned by the Fritzler Family Trust (Glen Fritzler) (59), operated by 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 who had been asleep in crew quarters above deck escaped; 1 crew and 33 diver-passengers were asleep below decks when the fire occurred. They all perished. 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. 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.
Many, including surviving crewmen, believe lithium-ion batteries are to blame for the tragedy. The NTSB is considering the charging station as a possible ignition source, and the U.S. Coast Guard has issued a marine safety bulletin encouraging passenger boat operators to consider limiting the unsupervised use of charging devices and extension cords / power strips aboard their vessels.
Lithium-ion batteries have long been identified as a source of potential fire hazards. If a battery is damaged, a short occurs. The resulting spark can ignite the highly reactive lithium, as can overheating caused by overcharging, or exposure to water. Between March 1991 and February 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) counted 241 incidents involving overheated lithium-ion batteries in airports or onboard aircraft. Two Boeing 747s (UPS Airlines Flight 6 in 2010, and Asiana Flight 991 in 2011) have been brought down by lithium-ion batteries during cargo transport; and missing Malaysia Flight 370 with 239 aboard had a cargo of 5408 pounds of lithium-ion batteries in its hold when it disappeared. You Tube is replete with videos of lithium-ion battery experiments and explosions, and one piece of security footage shows an office laptop exploding overnight and burning down an office building.
Divers typically bring plenty of lithium-charged products on dive boats, which these days have charging stations to keep them juiced. In the case of the Conception tragedy, passengers had done a night dive. Many aboard had used camera and underwater canister lighting equipment powered by lithium-ion batteries. Most aboard had a cell phones that needed charging as well. A crewman told the NTSB that he believes the fire started in the galley, just above the sleeping passengers, where there are numerous charging stations used to recharge battery-powered devices.
Whatever the cause of the dive boat fire turns out to be, consumers should use caution with their lithium-ion-powered devices, especially when they are being charged. Safety experts say consumers should only use charging devices specifically made for their device and should not leave them in a charger unattended or overnight when no one is present.
- 2020 Haggerty, Betsy Frawley. Outer Limits. Understanding the Limitation of Liability Act Work Boat ( Volume 77 No.2) :(14-15). February.
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:
- 1. Jerry Boylan (65), captain
- 2. Cullen Monitor, 2nd captain
- 3. Mike Kohl (58), galley cook
- 4. Milton French, deckhand
- 5. Ryan Sims, deckhand
September 2, 2019 casualties from the destruction by fire of Conception:
- 1. Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz (26), Santa Barbara, CA deckhand on the Conception crew
- 2. Juha Pekka Ahopelto (50), Sunnyvale, CA
- 3. Neal Gustav Baltz (42), Phoenix, AZ (couple)
- 4. Patricia Ann Beitzinger (48), Chandler, AZ (couple)
- 4. Raymond Scott Chan (59), Los Altos, CA (father) (physics teacher at American High School in Fremont; former hardware engineer)
- 6. Kendra Chan (26), Los Altos, CA (daughter)(wildlife biologist with US Fish & Wildlife Service, Ventura)
- 7. Justin Carroll Dignam (58), Anaheim Hills, CA
- 8. Lisa Fiedler (52), Mill Valley, CA (hair dresser and nature photographer) (went alone on the trip)
- 9. Kristina “Kristy” Finstad (41), Santa Cruz, CA, (owner of Worldwide Diving Adventures)
- 10. Adrian Dahood-Fritz (40), Sacramento, CA (wife; CA state senior environmental scientist)
- 11. Andrew Fritz (40), Sacramento, CA (husband; photographer)
- 12. Dan Garcia (46), Berkeley, CA (husband; Apple employee)
- 13. Yulia Krashennaya [Garcia] (40), Berkeley, CA (wife)
- 14. Marybeth Guiney (51), Santa Monica, CA (National Marketing and Media Consultant)
- 15. Charles Spencer McIlvain (44), Santa Monica, CA (visual effects designer for Walt Disney)
- 16. Yuko Hatano (39), San Jose, CA (worked at Western Digital)
- 17. Xiang Lin (45), Fremont, CA (artificial intelligence engineer)
- 18. Kaustubh Nirmal (33), Stamford, CT (husband, accountant and Indian national)
- 19. Sanjeeri Satish Deopujari [Nirmal] (31), Stamford, CT (wife, dentist and Indian national)
- 20. Michel Storm Quitasol (62), Stockton, CA (father) birthday trip
- 21. Fernisa Sison [Quitasol] (57), Stockton, CA (step-mother)
- 22. EvanMichel Solano Quitasol (37), Stockton, CA (sister) (nurse at St. Joseph's Medical Center)
- 23. Nicole Storm Quitasol (31), Imperial Beach, CA, CA (sister) (bartender)
- 24. Angela Rose Quitasol (28), Stockton, CA (sister) (middle school science teacher)
- 25. Steve Salika (55), Santa Cruz, CA (husband, father of student at Pacific Collegiate High School, Apple employee)
- 26. Carol Diana Adamic [Salika] (60), Santa Cruz, CA (wife and mother of student at Pacific Collegiate High School)
- 27. Tia Salika-Adamic (17), Santa Cruz, CA (daughter and student at Pacific Collegiate High School) (17th birthday trip)
- 28. Berenice Felipe (16), Santa Cruz, CA (student at Pacific Collegiate High School traveling with the Salika family)
- 29. Sunil Sandhu (46), San Francisco, CA (Singaporean citizen; Senior Scientist for the Pointcloud Inc. tech company based in San Francisco)
- 30. Ted Strom (62), Germantown, TN (Memphis, TN pathologist)
- 31. Kristian Takvam (34), San Francisco, CA (worked for the web company, Brilliant)
- 32. Caroline “Carrie” McLaughlin (35), Oakland, CA (worked for the web company, Brilliant)
- 33. Wei Tan (26), Goleta, CA (Singaporean citizen, U.C. Berkeley graduate in industrial engineering)
- 34. Vaidehi Campbell Williams (41), Felton, CA (worked for the Soquel Creek Water District)
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." ”
September 17, 2019 [KSRO]: “Family members of the 34 people who died in the Labor Day dive boat fire can apply for money to pay for counseling and funeral costs. The California Victim Compensation Board named the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office to help families seek compensation. The chartered boat, Conception, caught fire off the coast of Santa Cruz Island on Labor Day. Only five crew members made it off the boat alive. It’s unclear what caused the 75-foot vessel to catch fire, but federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation.”
November 25, 2019 [AP]: “Records: Conception dive boat exempt from safety rules. LOS ANGELES (AP) — Records show the diving boat that caught fire off California, killing 34 people, was among hundreds of small vessels exempted by the Coast Guard from stricter safety rules designed to make it easier for passengers to escape. The Los Angeles Times on Monday cites documents that show the Conception was one of 325 boats built before 1996 and given exemptions from standards imposed on new vessels. The newer rules required escape hatches at least 32 inches (81 centimeters) wide and illuminated exit signs. The Conception, built in 1981, had a 24-inch (61-centimeter) hatch and no illuminated signs. The newspaper says it’s unclear whether such measures would have made a difference on the Conception. Crew members on deck said they were unable to reach passengers below because of intense flames.”
December 14, 2019 [Record.net]: “LOS ANGELES — California Sen. Dianne Feinstein last week proposed sweeping boat safety legislation in the wake of the Conception fire that killed 34 people, including five members of a Stockton family. The legislation would require small passenger vessels to have at least two escape exits, strengthen standards for fire alarm systems and create mandatory safety rules for handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries. The proposal comes amid growing scrutiny over how the Coast Guard has regulated passenger vessels. A Los Angeles Times review of Coast Guard records over 20 years found the agency repeatedly rejected recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board for tougher safety rules. The documents showed that after investigating earlier boat fires, the NTSB called on the Coast Guard to require small vessels to establish procedures for conducting regular inspections and reporting maintenance and repair needs for all of a boat’s systems. But the Coast Guard rejected those calls, calling them “unnecessarily burdensome and a duplication of existing requirements.”
The cause of the Conception fire is still under investigation. Authorities have said they believe the passengers were trapped below deck when the fire broke out. The NTSB has raised concerns about the functionality of the two exits in the area where passengers slept in stacked bunks beneath the waterline. Among those aboard were five members of a Stockton family — Michael Storm Quitasol, 62; Fernisa Sison, 57; EvanMichel Solano Quitasol, 37; Nicole Storm Solano Quitasol, 31; and Angela Rose Solano Quitasol, 28 — who perished along with 29 others in the dive-boat fire. NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy said in September that she was “taken aback” by the small size of the emergency escape hatches, adding that she thought it would be difficult for passengers to exit during an emergency in the dark. The Times reported last month that the Conception was one of about 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996 and given special exemptions from safety standards that the Coast Guard imposed on new vessels, some of which required larger escape hatches and illuminated exit signs. The Coast Guard could not immediately be reached for comment. But after the Times story ran, officials said they would reconsider some of the rejected safety recommendations. In September, a fire broke out on the Conception during a weekend diving excursion in the Channel Islands, killing everyone who had been sleeping below deck. Since the accident, investigators have cited some of the same deficiencies pointed out by the NTSB in other boat fires: lack of crew training and inadequate safety measures and maintenance. A preliminary NTSB investigation found that the Conception had violated a requirement that it have a roving watch during the night, saying the five crew members who survived awoke to discover the flames. The agency also has raised concerns about the functionality of the two exits in the area where passengers slept. The results from the NTSB investigation into the Labor Day disaster could take 18 months to complete. Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are trying to determine what sparked the blaze.
“The Conception boat fire was a tragedy that could have been prevented had stronger safety measures been in place. We can’t allow this to happen again,” Feinstein, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We must ensure that small passenger vessels have the right safety measures in place to prevent disasters at sea.” The bill was co-written by Reps. Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley, both California Democrats. One goal of the legislation is to better protect boats that the Coast Guard didn’t require to follow newer safety rules. “It is abundantly clear that Congress must take immediate action to address safety hazards on older boats, which were grandfathered in and exempted from newer safety rules,” Brownley said in a statement.”
December 15, 2019 [LAT]: “Battery dangers got little attention from Coast Guard despite red flags before Conception fire. Santa Barbara — Nearly a year before 34 people were killed in a fire aboard the dive boat Conception, a second vessel owned by the same charter company began a three-day voyage around the Channel Islands. Divers on the Vision charged numerous lithium-ion batteries installed in cameras, phones, computers and even underwater scooters with an array of power outlets in the salon area. At some point, one of those batteries began to smolder as it was charging. An alarmed crew member quickly tossed it into the water, preventing the fire from spreading, a witness and several sources told The Times.
The fire underscored the potential dangers of such batteries, which have been banned from cargo areas of commercial planes and become the subject of tighter regulations by the U.S. Navy. But the U.S. Coast Guard didn't sound major alarms about the fire risk of the batteries until after the Labor Day fire aboard the Conception, the worst maritime disaster in modern California history. Officials are still working to determine the cause of the fire, investigating whether it was arson, an electrical or battery fire or some sort of malfunction on the vessel. But some boat safety experts have pointed to the batteries—which have become a staple for divers who use them to power underwater equipment such as lights, cameras and scooters—as a possible starting point for the blaze. Coast Guard inspectors in California didn't know about the previous fire aboard the Vision until The Times requested details about it this month. In hindsight, it would have been nice to know about it," Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told The Times.
After the Conception fire, the Coast Guard for the first time recommended that owners of the passenger vessels immediately urge crews "to reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords." Glen Fritzler, whose Truth Aquatics owns both the Conception and the Vision, believes the batteries were the cause of the Conception disaster. "I'm telling you the batteries are the issue, and we were never warned," Fritzler said in an emailed statement to The Times. "I have had top level professional photographers dive with me and they did not understand the dangers." Fritzler and his attorney declined to comment further about the fires aboard the Vision or the Conception, citing ongoing investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI. He also declined to comment on why his company didn't report the earlier fire to authorities. Operators are not required to report fires that cause less than $75,000 in damage.
A Preliminary investigation on the Conception fire found major breakdowns in required safety procedures on the vessel owned by Truth Aquatics, including inadequate crew training and the absence of a roving night watch at all times while passengers bunks are occupied to alert passengers below deck on an emergency. Truth Aquatics has also come under scrutiny for how it handled battery charging on boats. Divers who used the Conception previously told The Times that the operator used numerous extension cords to handle the high demand for power to charge various devices. Passengers often angled for limited charging outlets nestled behind foam-filled, L-shaped benches in the salon areas to power strobe lights, cameras, flashlights and video power packs. "Stuff is plugged in everywhere," said Ben Wolfe, a retired Los Angeles County fire captain.
ALARM IN AVIATION Much of the concern about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries has come from the commercial airline industry. The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation have expressed concerns because the batteries pack large amounts of energy and can overheat or self-ignite if they are defective, damaged or overcharged, experts said. The batteries are used in consumer products such as cell phones, laptop computers, power tools, cameras and countless rechargeable electronic devices. Manufacturers each year make millions of devices powered by the batteries. Lithium-ion batteries create heat when they charge. If not properly vented, the heat from one cell or battery can set off a chain reaction with other batteries, said Thomas Barrera, a scientist and consultant who advised NASA on the topic. To protect against short-circuiting, batteries contain a thin strip of polypropylene to prevent electrodes from touching. If they short-circuit, heat can be generated rapidly, and once oxygen becomes involved, things can turn bad quickly, Barrera said. Such fires also burn hot—up to or more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit—and could exceed the capabilities of an aircraft's fire-suppression system and led to a catastrophic failure of an airplane, the FAA said. Internationally, regulators have attributed four deaths and the total loss of three aircraft to incidents involving fires started by lithium-ion batteries being transported in cargo, in 2006, 2010 and 2011. After advising global airlines in 2017 to keep the batteries out of cargo holds, the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation this year adopted rules allowing passengers to take them only in carry-on luggage. In cargo holds, passengers and airline employees cannot see if a battery fire starts and spreads to other baggage. In the cabin, crew members and passengers can at least see and smell the smoke. The number of lithium-ion battery incidents nationwide remains unknown. But several groups now track the problem. As of Oct. 1, the FAA had logged at least 252 cases since 2006 in which batteries smoked or caught fire inside the cargo hold or passenger area of an aircraft. Among other things, the fires involved laptops, chargers, e-cigarettes and cellular phones. In at least one case, headphones have exploded on a plane. Aircraft personnel in the U.S. have had to extinguish a device with a smoking lithium-ion battery inside a cabin at least once a month this year. Airline employees have taken action to prevent catastrophes. In September, a passenger's bag with a portable speaker on an American Airlines luggage cart caught fire in Dallas. The fire was extinguished, but it burned several other bags, FAA records show. In August, a passenger's portable battery charger began to heat up and would not turn off on a Sky West flight between San Francisco and Texas. A flight attendant placed the device in a battery containment bag an monitored it, FAA records show. In June a fully loaded Southwest Airlines plane was evacuated and taken out of service after a passenger's carry-on bag, with an e-cigarette battery charger and two batteries inside, started to smoke under a seat. A flight attendant used a fire extinguisher to douse the device, according to FAA records. The U.S. Navy also has severe restrictions on lithium-ion batteries, and in 2017 it banned all vaping devices from its vessels after they sparked numerous fires. In 2008, lithium-ion batteries being charged ignited a blaze aboard a Navy SEAL mini-submarine in Pearl Harbor. Since then, the Navy has carefully controlled and vetted lithium-ion batteries as larger ones have become part of more equipment on vessels. The Navy recently established the Navy Battery Development and Safety Enterprise to advance the fleet's lithium-ion-enabled capabilities. The Navy's research wing is regarded as among the most advanced when it comes to developing safer batteries to avoid fires. Two trade groups representing battery makers, developers and suppliers urge caution when transporting the batteries on airplanes, according to their websites. "The industry obviously has an outstanding record for safety. There are millions of electronic devices that people use every day and the record reflects that," the Rechargeable Battery Assn. said in 2017. But restrictions on devices that use lithium-ion batteries have not extended to passenger boats. Until the Conception fire, the Coast Guard had not issued any widespread guidelines regarding their use, although in 2016, a Marine Safety Alert warned boaters about a recall of Samsung phones and provided ways to minimize risk from those batteries overheating.
On Sept. 11, nine days after the Conception fire, the Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin for passenger vessels instructing boat operators to —among other things—"reduce potential hazards from lithium batteries, power strips and extension cords." Asked why it issued the alert, the Coast Guard told The Times it wanted to "provide an immediate reminder to owners and operators about regulations related to firefighting, lifesaving, preparations for emergencies, and means of escape." The Times review of nearly 20 years of Coast Guard records found the agency repeatedly rejected some of the recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board for tougher safety rules. Last week, three California members of Congress introduced federal legislation to require small passenger vessels to have at least two escape exits, strengthen standards for fire alarm systems and create mandatory safety rules for the handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries.
More batteries on diving excursions Boats such as the Conception and Vision were built decades before the book in personal electronics and high-end diving gear. On dive excursions, passengers now carry cameras, computers, lights, underwater scooters and cellphones—almost all of which are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Albert Vogel, a 73-year-old from Durham, Calif., was on an overnight trip on the Conception the week before the deadly Labor Day fire. He said the electrical outlets were "dangerously close to seat cushions." "If one of these devices had overheated...it could have easily set fire to the cushions," he said. "We were not told anything about being careful with charging or any issues related to that. We were just on our own on that, and people used them." Don Barthelmess, who taught diving at Santa Barbara City College, said many divers brought power strips to plug in their devices. "Anywhere there would be a 110-volt outlet, divers would commandeer an outlet," he said. "People pretty much fight." But Barthelmass, who called Truth Aquatics "the Cadillac of diving operations in California," didn't think the charging set-up—or any of the aspects of the boat—raised safety alarms. Being on a boat is inherently dangerous, and these are the risks that we accept as people that go diving and go on boats," he said. "Fires are no exception. No amount of regulations or laws can prevent accidents." Greg Lousignout, 70, a former police officer from Peoria, Ill., said that he has been taking trips for three decades on Truth Aquatics vessels and that Fritzler, the owner, is a friend. When he first started, few divers carted loads of electronic equipment. But that changed in recent years as manufacturers flooded the market with cheaper, mass-produced equipment, he said. Barrera said these products bring risks, saying that cheaper knockoff cables and plugs don't have a power management system to stop the overcharging of a battery. Wolfe, the retired fire captain, was aboard the Vision when the battery caught fire last year. He didn't see the fire, but other passengers told him about it. Wolfe recalled seeing areas around electrical outlets filled with other items. He said the batteries and chargers were often stored on seat cushions crowded with other items. "The space down behind the cushion often had T-shirts, towels and bottles of wine because it was a place to store them and stop them from rolling around," he said. That scenario could be problematic, Barrera said. "If a lithium battery is buried while charging under clothes and on a surface that does not help dissipate the heat, a perfect storm of events can come into play," he said. Barrera and other experts emphasized that nothing is inherently unsafe about the batteries as long as precautions are taken. He said that astronauts on spacewalks depend on the batteries and that NASA is able to operate them safely even in the extreme environment of space.
Greater awareness of fire dangers While divers continue to plunge into the waters off Southern California, boat owners are taking extra steps to limit fire dangers aboard vessels. Andrea Mills, an education coordinator at Island Packers in Ventura County, said the boating company imposed new safety rules after the Coast Guard issued the warning about lithium-ion batteries in September. Island Packers never encountered any battery fires, but it banned all electronics, not just those with lithium-ion batteries, from gear stored below deck on its four vessels, Mills said. It went a step further than the Coast Guard warning to create an additional safety measure for passengers, she said. "We are way more aware of the problems in cargo holds," Mills said. "We did research and read about all the fires in airplanes." Ralph Clevenger, who shot photos and videos for Truth Aquatics, said there needs to be heightened awareness about charging devices on boats. He said he is part of an email group with dozens of photographers who have discussed how to educate boat owners about battery dangers. We "have said, you have got to change things, it's too dangerous, he. said."”
January 7, 2020 [Workboat]: “Congress introduces bill to increase passenger vessel safety. In December, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Representatives Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley (all D-Calif.) introduced the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, a bill to establish new safety measures for small passenger vessels in the aftermath of the Conception boat fire in waters off California’s Santa Cruz Island earlier this year. “The Conception boat fire was a tragedy that could have been prevented had stronger safety measures been in place. We can’t allow this to happen again,” said Sen. Feinstein. “We must ensure that small passenger vessels have the right safety measures in place to prevent disasters at sea. This bill addresses the specific conditions that are being investigated as causes of the Conception fire, conditions that exist on hundreds of similar vessels in operation today. Congress should act on this bill before another tragedy strikes.” “If we are to save lives and make necessary reforms in the wake of the Conception tragedy, we must no longer allow older vessels to operate under antiquated regulations at the expense of our public safety,” said Rep. Carbajal. “Our bill to modernize maritime safety is not only practical, it’s imperative. Over the years, we have seen enough evidence from previous disasters and other investigations to know that the time to put safety first is long overdue. I’m proud to work with my friends and fellow Californians, Senator Feinstein and Rep. Brownley, to bring forward a bill that makes our waters safer and makes important updates to an outdated system.” “While we await NTSB’s final report on the Conception incident, it is abundantly clear that Congress must take immediate action to address safety hazards on older boats, which were grandfathered-in and exempted from newer safety rules. I thank Senator Feinstein and Congressman Carbajal for their efforts to ensure the safety of passengers and crew, and I am proud to co-author this critical boat safety legislation,” said Rep. Brownley.
What the bill does:
- Requires small passenger vessels to have no less than two means of escape to different parts of the vessel.
- Mandates safety standards for the handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium ion batteries.
- Establishes stricter standards for interconnected fire alarm systems.
- The Conception boat fire killed 34 passengers in the early morning hours on Sept. 2, 2019, in waters off Santa Cruz Island near Santa Barbara, Calif.
- A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report found that smoke alarms on the vessel only sounded locally and were not interconnected throughout the vessel, so the crew above decks weren’t alerted.
- Following the Conception fire, the Coast Guard issued a Marine Safety Information Bulletin urging that operators limit the unsupervised charging of lithium ion batteries and the use of extension cords to reduce potential fire hazards.
- Many of the passengers are believed to have died from smoke inhalation in the bunk room because flames were blocking an emergency exit.
January 13, 2020 [LAT]: “Four families whose relatives were among the 34 people killed in a fire early Labor Day morning aboard the dive boat Conception are suing the vessel’s owners, alleging they failed to have a roving watch required by the Coast Guard, had insufficient fire suppression and detection and inadequate means of escape. Documents filed in federal court allege the vessel, which was owned by Truth Aquatics, was “unseaworthy” and that captain Jerry Boylan failed to properly implement required watch policies and procedures meant to detect emergencies such as a fire. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that no one was designated as a roving watch at the time the blaze engulfed the Conception off Santa Cruz Island, killing everyone who was sleeping below deck. The captain and four other crew members sleeping above deck managed to escape the blaze. The filings Monday come after attorneys for Truth Aquatics’ owners Glen and Dana Fritzler filed a petition in federal court to limit the payout to the families of the Conception victims. They cited a steamship maritime law, the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, in asking a judge to eliminate their financial liability or lower it to an amount equal to the post-fire value of the boat, or $0. But attorneys Robert Mongeluzzi, one of the nation’s leading experts on maritime liability, and Brian Panish contend in the newly filed court papers that the conduct of Truth Aquatics means the vessel’s owners aren’t covered by that law. The fire is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Coast Guard and FBI that’s overseen by the U.S. attorney’s office, in addition to probes by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation. The NTSB’s preliminary investigation found that the crew members were sleeping in a berth behind the wheelhouse when the fire broke out. By the time they awoke and jumped down to the main deck, they found the galley and salon engulfed in flames. The main bunk room where their 33 customers and a fellow crew member dozed lay directly below, in the belly of the boat. The only way out was through the inferno. No one made that escape. Mongalazzi said the captain should face charges of seaman’s manslaughter and that under the law all that is required is negligence. A Times investigation found that other captains with Truth Aquatics acknowledged they didn’t have formal roving watch schedules even though they were required by Coast Guard regulations. The Conception’s certificate of inspection requires a crew member to be designated “as a roving patrol at all times, whether of not the vessel is underway, when the passenger’s bunks are occupied.” Glen Fritzler, through his attorney, has declined to comment. In the days after the fire, a statement from an attorney representing Truth Aquatics said a crew member had checked the area where the fire broke out about a half hour earlier and found nothing unusual. The cause of the deadly fire remains under investigation, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducting extensive testing to assist disaster investigations. It is believed to be the worst maritime disaster in modern California history. Some boat safety experts have pointed to the charging of lithium-ion batteries — which have become a staple for divers who use them to power underwater equipment such as lights, cameras and scooters — as a possible starting point for the blaze. After the Conception fire, the Coast Guard for the first time recommended that owners of passenger vessels immediately urge crews “to reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.” The Times reported last month that nearly a year before the Conception fire, there was an incident aboard a second Truth Aquatics vessel in which a lithium-ion battery began to smolder as it was charging. An alarmed crew member quickly tossed it into the water, preventing the fire from spreading, a witness and several sources told The Times. The fire underscored the potential dangers of such batteries, which have been banned from cargo areas of commercial planes and become the subject of tighter regulations by the U.S. Navy.Coast Guard inspectors in California didn’t know about the previous fire aboard the Vision until The Times requested details about it. In suits filed Monday, attorneys Mongeluzzi and Panish wrote that Truth Aquatics was aware of the potential dangers of lithium-ion because of the prior fire but failed to warn passengers and crew about the hazard posed by the charge area directly above where passengers slept. The federal court filings say that the lithium-ion batteries charging are the likely cause of the fire and that passengers were encouraged by the dive boat operator to charge all their batteries needed for diving there. Glen Fritzler believes the batteries were the cause of the Conception disaster. “I’m telling you the batteries are the issue, and we were never warned,” Fritzler said in an emailed statement to The Times. “I have had top-level professional photographers dive with me and they did not understand the dangers.” Until the Conception fire, the Coast Guard had not issued any widespread guidelines regarding their use despite action by aviation authorities and the Navy to restrict their transportation, although in 2016, a Marine Safety Alert warned boaters about a recall of Samsung phones and provided ways to minimize risks from those batteries overheating.”
May 1, 2020 [SB Independent]: “After the Conception boat fire killed my sister, Kristy Finstad, and 32 divers and one crew woman, I was haunted, wondering if she died trapped, trying to escape. For months I awakened at night, choking for air in my nightmares. I needed to solve the puzzle of what really happened. What caused the fire? Why were they unable to escape from the lower bunkroom? How could this be prevented? I recently discovered the missing pieces.
It’s been eight months since the fire aboard the Conception. It occurred over Labor Day weekend 2019, at Santa Cruz Island. Kristy and her husband, Dan Chua, owned WDA (Worldwide Diving Adventures), the ill-fated charter master. WDA is a family business started by our father, Bill Finstad, half a century ago. The divers had signed up for what was expected to be an exciting three-day dive trip to Channel Islands National Park aboard Truth Aquatics’ well-respected dive boat.
After Kristy’s death, when her Toyota was retrieved from Santa Barbara Harbor’s parking lot, the CD player automatically engaged with the last song she played. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” filled the truck’s cab. It was prophetically bone-chilling. My tears streamed from the depths of my grief. My sister was gone.
I blame lithium-ion batteries. The crewman who discovered the fire heard the odd “caaw” sounds made by burning batteries. The 17 night divers had wet dive lights to charge, just five hours before the fire. Some had brought their own power strips because there were so many batteries to charge.
Given the needs of the 39 people on board, a spaghetti of power strips with charging cell phones, tablets, cameras with spare batteries, laptops, and dive lights would have been on the back two tables. Last year a crewmember found a smoldering underwater light on the Vision and threw it overboard before it ignited.
Boat fires often start in engine compartments or are traced to electrical sources, but two crewmen found no fire in the engine room, and they successfully released the dinghy using electricity.
I researched how one faulty battery could start a killer fire chain reaction. A non-certified battery, like a cheap spare, can overheat from moisture exposure or low-quality insulation layers between the cells, causing a runaway thermal reaction (932 degrees F in seconds). Once the highly reactive lithium ignites, it cannot be put out with fire extinguishers, which can disperse the lithium, spreading the fire. Using water to put out a lithium fire is debated, since it re-ignites, but this method is approved for airlines.
The Federal Aviation Administration has documented that lithium-ion batteries have brought down aircraft: UPS Flight 6 and Asiana Flight 991. Why not a boat? Between 1991 and 2019, the FAA counted 241 incidents involving overheated lithium-ion batteries in airports or onboard aircraft. YouTube is replete with videos of explosions. At first, I didn’t believe a battery could cause such a rapid killer fire, until I found evidence.
The fire ignited, expanded, and ended 34 lives in six to ten minutes in a flash-over of flames, according to fire inspectors. A crewman had checked the galley at 2:35 a.m. The mayday call was received at 3:15 a.m. Just minutes before that, the same crewman heard something like a falling chair. He went to the back of the upper deck and discovered the already intense conflagration engulfing the aft entrance to the salon. He heard odd “caaw” sounds. He ran back into the wheelhouse shouting “Fire!” The captain’s mayday call ended with a haunting gasping: “I can’t breathe.”
Kristy slept in the first bunk located under the stairs. The stairs were not blocked by fire initially, and Kristy is the type of courageous person who would have wrapped up in blankets to run through flames and retreat into the ocean. The crew saw thick black smoke but no fire at the front of the galley where the stairs come up. When they attempted a rescue through the forward galley window, they said it was warm but not hot to the touch.
Kristy knew exactly where the fire escape hatch was located on the aft end of the bunk room. I’ve crawled through it with her before. Did she suffer trying to escape?
Ghost shadow images on the bunk mattresses of the Conception’s burned hull tell the story how they died in their sleep, as the deadly gasses blanketed them. They never left their bunks in attempted escape.
Kristy’s coroner report states the cause of her death was smoke inhalation, in minutes. There were two smoke/carbon monoxide (CO) alarms in the bunk room, tested with fresh batteries just two months earlier. Why didn’t they wake the passengers?
I believe they had already passed out from carbon monoxide poisoning. Unlike smoke, which rises, CO quickly diffuses into surrounding air. CO would have been sucked down the stairs to the bunk room, where the air-conditioning intake vents draw air down from the galley. The poisonous CO would have been blown directly onto each sleeping face.
Carbon monoxide sneaks in undetected as a clear, odorless, and tasteless gas, causing sleeping victims to be rendered unconscious. They die before experiencing symptoms or discomfort. My nightmares ended with my sister falling into a deeper sleep as the poisons ushered her to her death.
Solving the Puzzle
When the FBI investigation meeting for family of the victims was cancelled due to COVID, I ordered the forensic toxicology report. It showed Kristy’s CO level to be greater than 75 percent saturation. Her cyanide was up to two micrograms per milliliter. These levels are exceptionally high, causing death in a couple minutes. But four to 15 minutes pass with carbon monoxide levels above 400 parts per million before a CO detector reaches the threshold to go off. Furthermore, the Coast Guard does not even require CO detectors.
My stomach churned reading the coroner’s report describing my sister’s scorched body. It proves she was sleeping on her right side when death occurred. Her right arm still held parts of her nightshirt, while her left side was charred beyond recognition. Death had already occurred by the time fire ravaged her lifeless body. Except for her right side, most of her body was covered in raw 4th-degree burns. She never even rolled over. May this bring comfort for everyone to know they passed away while resting in peace.
In my opinion, a plan outlined by Glen Fritzler, Truth Aquatics’ owner, to install fireproof charging cabinets is the best solution to a disaster such as this. They would automatically close and lock when sensing heat, release an internal fire extinguisher, set off a centralized alarm system, and vent the fumes safely outside.
The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, a bill for new safety measures in the aftermath of the Conception tragedy, will be voted on in May when the COVID delay is lifted. I hope the bill will be modified to reflect this evidence before this tragedy is repeated. It won’t bring my sister and the 33 others back, but it just might keep others alive.” by Heather Sawdon, Kristy's sister