The Central Coast’s dive boat industry is likely to feel pressure as investigators try to figure out what caused the blaze that killed 34 people when the Conception burst into flames early on Labor Day near Santa Cruz Island.
Divers and first responders had recovered the bodies of 33 victims at press time, with one passenger still missing. U.S. Coast Guard officials and representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board launched investigations into the source of the Sept. 3 fire as questions arose from families and members of the diving community about the events that led up to the disaster.
Victims of the fire likely died of smoke inhalation prior to the sinking of the ship, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced Sept. 6.
Officials were able to reach an early conclusion that the passengers of the boat whose bodies had been recovered had likely perished before the flames reached them. Brown said local and federal officials had declined to do traditional autopsies on the 33 bodies that had been recovered, since it would delay the process of returning the remains to family members. The preliminary conclusions had been reached through external examinations and toxicology tests.
Representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had joined the investigation efforts and were still looking into all potential causes, which includes criminal liabilities, Brown said.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said the department’s primary goal was salvaging the remains of the boat so that it can determine where to focus its investigation into the cause. Strong winds and currents, however, impeded the process of righting and raising the boat, said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Monica Rochester.
The remains of one passenger had still not been found or recovered at press time, but Brown said the unified command anticipated that the salvage team’s efforts Sept. 6 “will be able to access areas that heretofore have been inaccessible to them.”
Next of kin for all 34 victims have been notified, Brown said, including those for passengers whose families lived in Singapore, Japan and India. He said 18 victims had been positively identified through a rapid DNA analysis, but only nine names were released after their families had been contacted with the results.
Vessel owner Truth Aquatics filed a petition Sept. 5 in U.S. District Court to limit its potential liability under a maritime law that restricts claims to the value of the vessel, which was destroyed.
One or more passengers have notified Truth Aquatics that they may file for alleged injury, property damage or death, the filing states. Truth Aquatics denied any negligence or fault in the fire.
Efforts to stabilize and eventually salvage the sunken hull were underway, with the vessel lying 65 feet below the surface. NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said she was confident the agency can determine “how it happened, why it happened, and what safety improvements are needed to make sure it never happens again.”
Officials asked the public for help in providing photos or videos that could provide insight into the incident. Meanwhile, social media posts were hinting at the names of the victims, many of them from the Bay Area, and legal experts were beginning to research issues such as California law versus maritime law, the statute of limitations for filing claims, and the validity of waivers passengers might have filed before they got on board.
Answers could come quickly as a preliminary NTSB report is expected within 10 days, although a final report could take as long as two years.
The vessel has been inspected annually and was equipped with fixed and mobile firefighting systems in compliance with U.S. Coast Guard regulations, said Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said there was no indication that the fire was preceded by an explosion.
The depth of the water “definitely throws another element of challenge into the investigation,” said Lt. Eric Raney of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
The fire started in the predawn hours Sept. 3, with the first mayday call to the Coast Guard originating from the boat at 3:30 a.m. A second mayday call came from a nearby private boat that picked up the five members of the crew that survived the incident, and the Coast Guard reported that the Conception sank around 7:20 a.m.
Tom Ingram, president and CEO of the San Diego-based Diving Equipment Marketing Association, said calls and emails immediately poured in from fellow divers expressing their shock and condolences.
“It is not a normal situation at all,” Ingram told the Business Times. “It’s something of a mystery as to what happened here, especially with that particular operation. Truth Aquatics is among the top in the diving industry.”
Much like airlines, “live-aboard” vessels like Conception undergo safety drills for emergencies, he said, adding that he had previously been a passenger on the company’s boats.
He described a stairwell leading out of the passenger quarters with no door to block it and said each boat was equipped with an escape hatch at the rear of the vessel.
“Safety is always first and foremost in everyday awareness and conversations,” said Andrea Mills, education coordinator for Island Packers, which runs boat trips to Channel Islands National Park. “It doesn’t take an accident like this to be safety minded. There’s not only Coast Guard standards, but industry standards.”
Though they don’t run live-aboard vessels, all crew members for Island Packers go through monthly training drills for man overboard, fire and flood scenarios, Mills said, including practice runs with partners like the National Parks Service, Ventura County Search and Rescue and the Coast Guard.
Divers trade group spokesman Ingram said he expected diving activity to slow as officials investigate the cause of the blaze.
“I think there will be some impact here to a certain degree, because some people will be afraid,” he said. “They don’t know what happened here. I think we’ll be able to move on when we find out what happened.”
Conception has been owned by Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics since 1981, which was founded by dive boat captain Roy Hauser in 1974, according to the company’s website.
The company’s current owner, Glen Fritzler, was awarded the 2019 California Scuba Service Award by industry association Scuba Properties Corp. for his work as a diving concessionaire and in promoting California as a diving destination. In its 45-year history, Truth Aquatics has hosted around 450,000 divers on 1.3 million dives off the coast, the organization said.
Truth Aquatics has had a good reputation in the California diving industry since its founding “with a stellar safety record,” Ingram said. “It’s not only safe, but it’s one of the best-run operations that’s out there.”
Recreational boating was a $13 billion industry in California in 2018, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, with sales of boats, marine products and services estimated at $41 billion nationally in 2018.
In 2016, the most recent year of data available, there were 322 boating accidents in Southern California that resulted in 116 injuries and 14 fatalities, according to the California Division of Boating and Waterways. The incidents accounted for a little more than half of all boating accidents statewide and were a 14 percent increase over 2015, although injuries and fatalities both decreased. Around 136 of those accidents occurred in the Tri-Counties.
Liability for maritime accidents involves both state and admiralty law, said Santa Barbara attorney A. Barry Cappello, managing partner of Cappello & Noël. If the investigations determine that the incident was the result of negligence, the city could be on the hook for damages as the lessor for the boat.
Any claim would have to be filed within two years, putting pressure on the parties to conduct their own investigations. Liability release forms signed by parties would likely not cover an incident like the Conception fire, he said.
“The case has got to be properly plead and properly researched,” Cappello said. “They’d have to start their own investigation and get going.”
• Contact Marissa Nall at [email protected]