LOS ANGELES – Crew members on a dive boat say they were never briefed on emergency procedures before a pre-dawn fire swept the ship while it was anchored off the coast of Southern California, killing 34 people while they slept below deck, according to federal documents released Wednesday.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board say the cause of the fire aboard the Conception remains undetermined, but a possible ignition point is phones and other electronic devices plugged into sockets. A crew member told investigators he saw sparks when he plugged in his cell phone a few hours before the fire.
The boat was carrying 33 passengers on a scuba diving expedition over the Labor Day weekend last year. The fire broke out on the last night when the Conception was anchored off the island of Santa Cruz, about 25 miles south of Santa Barbara, the boat̵
All passengers and one crew member sleeping below deck were killed, none apparently having a chance to escape. The other five crew members, including Captain Jerry Boylan, survived by jumping into the water. They barely escaped after trying in vain to save the others, authorities said. Boylan made a Mayday call at 3:14 am, saying, “I can’t breathe,” before abandoning ship.
They boarded a nearby boat, the captain of which kept asking for help as Conception’s crew members returned in search of survivors. It took over an hour after Boylan’s first May Day call for the coast guard and other boats to arrive. The conception sank soon after dawn.
Boylan could face federal manslaughter charges, and recent court documents say criminal charges are imminent. The NTSB said all six crew members were sleeping when the fire broke out, a violation of Coast Guard regulations that required an itinerant guard.
Hundreds of pages of documents released by the safety committee provide a detailed look at the boat’s final hours on 2 September 2019. It will vote on 20 October on the results of the investigation, as well as the probable cause of the fire and any potential recommendations.
Ryan Sims, who had been working aboard the boat for just three weeks, told investigators he asked the captain to discuss contingency plans the day before the fire. Reportedly, Boylan would have told him, “When we have time”.
“I didn’t know what the procedures were,” Sims said. Other crew members also said they were unfamiliar with safety procedures.
Sims told detectives that he went to sleep after seeing sparks when he plugged in his cell phone, and the documents do not indicate that he reported what he saw. He told investigators that “while he was still in a sleep-like state, he heard a snap and then a crackle downstairs” as another crew member yelled, “Fire! Fire!”
Sims, who broke his leg while escaping the burning boat, is suing the ship’s owners and the company that chartered it, arguing that the Conception was not seaworthy and operated in a dangerous manner.
Families of 32 victims also filed lawsuits against boat owners, Glen and Dana Fritzler, and the boat company, Truth Aquatics. In turn, the Fritzlers and the company have filed a lawsuit to protect them from damage under a maritime law that limits the liability of ship owners. Documents filed in court show that they offered to resolve lawsuits with dozens of relatives of the victims.
Lawyers for the victims’ families, Sims, Boylan and the Fritzlers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles who is investigating the case declined to comment.
Boylan and the Fritzlers, who owned three dive boats, had a good reputation with customers and the Santa Barbara boating community. Coast Guard records show Conception had passed the two most recent safety inspections.
In 2018, Conception’s sister boat, the Vision, had a small fire involving a charging lithium-ion battery. An inspection by the Vision Coast Guard after the Conception fire found 40 violations, including 11 related to fire safety. He reduced the boat’s overnight capacity to 33 people after establishing that its double berths made it difficult for the second person to escape into bed. An inspection a few months earlier had not found any violations.
The passengers of the 75-foot wooden-hulled Conception slept in multi-level berths under the main deck. A staircase at one end of the bunk room led to the galley, as well as a 22-inch by 22-inch escape hatch that was above an upper bunk and away from the stairs.
NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy noted how difficult it was to reach the hatch during the Vision tour.
Documents say that the Conception’s escape hatch was usually discussed during safety briefings, but passengers were not shown where it was.
Kyle McAvoy, a maritime security specialist with Robson Forensic in Philadelphia who is often an expert witness in the trials, said the hatch should have been discussed during security briefings, but that it needs to be “pretty clear and obvious” how to open it.
During the interview with Cullen Molitor, the second captain of the boat, investigators asked several times about the items connected to the electrical outlets in the Conception galley.
Molitor said the divers plugged in flashlights, photographic equipment, strobe lights and cell phones the night of the fire. He estimated there were 10 to 20 items connected on one side and five to 15 on the other, with at least one multiple socket, though he said he didn’t know for sure, according to an interview transcript.
The Coast Guard issued additional safety recommendations following the tragedy, such as limiting the charge of lithium-ion batteries and the use of power strips and extension cords.
Molitor also said there were two smoke detectors in the bunk and two in the galley, but he didn’t hear any alarms after a crew member woke him. He wasn’t sure if they were linked together to play right away, but said he would expect to hear them from where he was sleeping.
“One thing we never heard was screams or bangs or anything from the boat, either while we were on it or when we were close,” Molitor said.