Nobody Was Standing Watch On Conception, And Other Details From NTSB's Boat Fire Report

A raging fire engulfed the diving boat Conception in the predawn hours on Monday, Sept. 2, 2019. Authorities believe 34 people were trapped below deck as the ship burned and later sank off Santa Cruz Island. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

In its preliminary report on the fire aboard the Santa Barbara-based dive boat Conception that killed 34 people, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says no mechanical or electrical issues were reported by the crew, and that the fire did not appear to originate in the engine compartment. The report also does not determine a cause of the fire.

The report contains new details from the NTSB investigators' interviews with the five surviving crew members. It appears from the report that nobody was standing watch, awake in the middle of the night.

This size vessel was required to have an overnight watch, said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Monica Rochester.

Those five had been sleeping in berths behind the wheelhouse — which is an upper level of the three-story dive boat. Top was the wheelhouse, middle floor was the salon, and the lower floor was the bunkroom.

A noise woke one crew member who was sleeping upstairs in the wheelhouse berths. He saw a fire burning in the back of the boat, on the sun deck, and it appeared to be burning up from the salon level. He woke up his fellow crew members, and the captain called in the distress message to the Coast guard.

The crew members tried to get to the 34 people sleeping down in the bunk room, but fire blocked them. They couldn't climb down the ladder on the back of the boat to get to the main deck because the ladder was on fire. So they jumped to the main deck and one of them broke his leg doing that.

From there, they couldn't get into the salon and galley — that middle level — because it was also full of fire, and the fire blocked the main way out of the bunk room. They also tried to open a window in the front of the boat to help people escape but they couldn't get it open.

At that point, they were overwhelmed by the smoke and they jumped off the boat, which was about 20 yards from shore. Two crew members swam to the back of the boat and climbed aboard, and they opened the engine compartment - and there was no fire there. They boarded their small auxiliary boat and picked up the other crew members.

At that point, they used the boat to get to a nearby boat — the Grape Escape — and put out the call for the Coast Guard to help.

The preliminary report will be followed in coming months by a close look at the boat's smoke detection and alarm systems, evacuation routes and the training of the crew for emergency situations like the fire.

THE OWNER'S LAWYER RESPONDS

The language of the NTSB preliminary report, based on those interviews with the five surviving crew members says, "At the time of the fire, five crewmembers were asleep in berths behind the wheelhouse, and one crewmember was asleep in the bunkroom.."

A lawyer for the owner of the scuba diving boat is disputing federal investigators' claims that all six of the vessel's crewmembers were sleeping when the blaze erupted in the middle of the night.

Douglas Schwartz, who represents Truth Aquatics, says a crewmember "checked on and around the galley area" around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 2.

THE FULL NTSB REPORT

UPDATES:

1:01 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the requirement for night watchperson.

4:18 p.m.: This article was updated to include a response from the boat owner's lawyer.

This article was originally published at 12:27 p.m.